Covid-free Pacific nations set to ease border restrictions

MAJURO, Marshall Islands | One of the world’s last Covid-free countries has set a date to reopen its borders for the first time since the pandemic began, while another is poised to loosen its hardline restrictions.

The governments of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Marshall Islands both say they are prepared for negative consequences, but concede they must transition away from maintaining strict border protocols.

FSM will lift border restrictions on August 1 while the Marshall Islands is set to reduce quarantine requirements next month, authorities from the two countries said on Friday.

The Pacific Ocean is home to the only four countries to have never recorded a Covid-19 case in their communities according to the World Health Organization. The other two are Nauru and Tuvalu.

Three other locales with the same Covid-free status are also in the Pacific: the territories of Tokelau and Pitcairn Islands, and the self-governing state of Niue.

FSM President David Panuelo said he hoped setting a date of August 1 for opening up would encourage his population of just over 100,000, spread across more than 600 islands, to maximise its vaccination coverage.

“Choosing to open the nation’s borders on 1 August is equivalent to purposefully choosing to introduce Covid-19 into the FSM shortly thereafter,” he said in a statement on Friday.

“Thus, it is essential that the decision be made so the nation transitions from Covid-19 free to Covid-19 protected.”

From August 1, visitors to FSM will need to show proof of full vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test to enter.

– ‘Heavy’ impact –

The Marshall Islands, with a population of 60,000, still enforces one of the world’s strictest border regimes, requiring visitors to spend three days in quarantine in Honolulu, Hawaii, followed by 14 days in the Marshall Islands.

But restrictions are set to loosen as soon as next month, according to government Chief Secretary Kino Kabua.

The National Disaster Committee she chairs is likely to recommend the removal of the Hawaii element and a reduction of the Marshall Islands quarantine period to 10 days.

“I don’t believe it’s realistic and sustainable to keep the status quo,” Kabua told AFP.

“We really should now be talking about what the impacts will be when there is introduction of the virus into the community, and the ways to cope and move forward.”

Secretary of Health Jack Niedenthal said the Marshall Islands were better placed to reopen than many Pacific nations because of a high vaccination rate and greater rapid testing resources.

However, he warned the country can still be hit by the virus’ arrival, pointing to an outbreak in American Samoa, which has a similar population and vaccination rate.

“In just a little over two months they have had 30 deaths from Covid,” he said.

“That’s two months with an average of a (Covid) funeral every other day. An outbreak of this virus potentially comes with months of school and business closures, so there is also a heavy social and economic impact to bear.” – AFP