Coronavirus sparks travel ban

President David Kabua welcomed new US Ambassador Roxanne Cabral to Majuro February 6 and the following day signed a health emergency declaration banning travel by RMI government workers and elected leaders in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to the Marshall Islands. Photo: Eve Burns.

GIFF JOHNSON

The Marshall Islands on February 7 issued an indefinite ban on all international travel by government employees and elected leaders to reduce risk of importing the coronavirus now affecting tens of thousands of people in more than two dozen countries and territories.

Marshall Islands President David Kabua signed a proclamation late Friday night declaring a “State of Health Emergency” in response to the World Health Organization’s declaration that the new coronavirus is a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Health authorities in this western Pacific nation say their medical facilities would be quickly overwhelmed with even a handful of coronavirus patients.

The new declaration requires all government workers — including those in state owned enterprises — and elected leaders to “suspend international trips effective immediately until further notice.” Only patients being referred to overseas hospitals for medical treatment are exempt from the travel ban.

The emergency declaration frees up $500,000 of unspent outer islands development funding to support the building of a special isolation ward at Majuro hospital and other needs related to coronavirus prevention. The President’s declaration also reaffirms a ban, implemented January 31, on anyone attempting to travel from China, Hong Kong or Macau to the Marshall Islands.

Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said Majuro hospital has only three ventilators, underlining the lack of medical equipment needed to deal with the coronavirus, which can cause severe respiratory problems. He said the Marshall Islands population of 55,000 is particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks because a large percentage of adults suffer from diabetes and other chronic illnesses that compromise their immune systems. “This is why we are worried about the new coronavirus,” Niedenthal said.

In tandem with the new emergency declaration, the President said a resolution will be introduced to Nitijela when it reconvenes February 17 to support the proclamation for up to one-year, unless cancelled by Cabinet.

With official travel suspended, Chief Secretary Kino Kabua advised top-level government personnel who currently have staff abroad attending meetings and trainings to make arrangements for their return as quickly as possible.

The proclamation doesn’t ban travel by people outside of government but urges local residents to postpone international travel. Those continuing with international travel “could be restricted from re-entering RMI if a state or country visited or transited through are added to the restrict list on the Ministry of Health’s travel advisory,” the new proclamation warned.


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