RMI: Not time for travel

Nitijela held a Committee of the Whole session March 6 so lawmakers could hear from Health and other RMI officials. They are seated in front of Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas, who chaired the COW session. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

“Stay where you are — refrain from traveling to the RMI,” was Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal’s message to people thinking of traveling to the Marshall Islands. He and other health officials spoke to the public about the coronavirus COVID-19 during a media conference in Majuro Wednesday March 11.
Majuro hospital chief of staff Dr. Robert Maddison urged Marshallese locally to refrain from large public gatherings where the coronavirus — once it gets to the Marshall Islands — can easily be passed person to person.

The Marshall Islands took the unprecedented action Sunday March 8 of closing off all airline travel into the country for a two-week period in an effort to prevent importation of the coronarivus COVID-19.
Sunday meetings of the RMI National Disaster Committee and the government’s Cabinet led to issuance of the latest travel advisory that immediately puts into effect a “total suspension of international travelers coming in the Marshall Islands” through March 22.

The move also included the inclusion of France and Spain to the “no fly” list, bringing to 10 the number of countries and areas from which travelers are banned from entering the Marshall Islands. Also on the travel restriction list are China, Macau, Hong Kong, S. Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran and Germany.
The new travel advisory was motivated, at least in part, by the announcement late last week that Hawaii confirmed its first COVID-19 case and the spread of the illness throughout the United States, including in areas where large concentrations of Marshall Islanders live.

At Wednesday’s media conference Dr. Aina Garstang said the ministry is putting together guidelines for public gatherings of all kinds. Depending on future developments with COVID-19 spread and if there is a confirmed case here, the RMI may need take action to close schools and halt public gatherings such as bingo, funerals and church gatherings, indicated Deputy Secretary Mailynn Lang.
A facility to accommodate future “patients under investigation” or people who may have come into contact with persons with COVID-19 but do not have symptoms is being prepared at the Arrak CMI campus. It will be available from March 18. Health officials said this was not a location where patients needing medical treatment would be located and added that the illness is passed from person to person when there is close contact. It is not an airborne disease.

Dr. Garstang urged RMI residents to practice basic hygiene as the best prevention: wash hands with soap many times a day, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and stay home if sick.
“We are on lock-down because we are not ready to deal with it yet,” said Niedenthal, adding the ministry is building infrastructure to support services for COVID-19 and future health needs.

“The repercussions from the Marshall Islands Ministry of Health March 8 advisory are going to be major,” said local businessman Michael Slinger in a widely circulated email after the ban was implemented on inbound travel Sunday. He called for better consultation with business and community leaders on government COVID-19 actions. “Is there any consultation with the Chamber of Commerce or business body before these advisories are put into effect?” he asked, noting that talks with the Chamber of Commerce over the past two weeks had resulted in the government easing an earlier 30-day quarantine on container ships arriving to Marshall Islands to the international standard of 14 days. “Engage and involve the private sector at all levels and let us help is the basic message,” Slinger said.

On the tourism front, RRE Hotel has been hard hit by travel bans instituted by the government as a preventive measure. “We’ve had a lot of cancellations,” said RRE Hotel Manager Colette Reimers, “and it’s affecting business.”

Visits by cruise ships and yachts are also suspended until further notice. While cruise ships only visit the country once or twice a year, Majuro is a popular destination for the yachting community.
Travel by government officials and elected leaders, paid for by the Marshall Islands government or other donors, continues to be banned. The only exception is for patients referred for off-island medical treatment. In addition, the Ministry of Health said together with the RMI Chief Secretary, it “reserves the right to make exceptions to any of the restrictions to allow for essential services.”

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