RMI repatriation moves ahead

The RMI Office of the Chief Secretary sponsored a series of Covid-19 awareness sessions for local residents late last week in Majuro. They involved government officials showing local residents how to use face masks and to take other Covid-19 prevention actions to be prepared in case the virus spreads to RMI in the future. Photo: Wilmer Joel.

Deputy Chief Secretary Abacca Anjain-Maddison, Deputy Health Secretary Mailynn Konelios-Lang and Public Health Director Dr. Frank Underwood led a public briefing last Friday about the government’s plan for repatriating Marshallese stranded outside RMI, starting with a group of 27 people scheduled to arrive this Saturday.

As repatriation moves into gear, some RMI residents and leaders are questioning the plan.

The first group of Marshallese to return to the RMI is scheduled to complete a 14-day quarantine period at the White Sands Hotel in Honolulu October 30, with a final Covid-19 test before they will be allowed to board the United Airlines flight for Kwajalein.

Once they arrive, the group is to stay at the Kwaj Lodge, the small hotel that the Army normally uses for visitors on short stays at Kwajalein. It has been designated by the Army command as the repatriation quarantine location for the RMI government’s repatriation program, according to Health officials.

The quarantine — which will include daily temperature checks and Covid tests on arrival and prior to release — will be managed by Ministry of Health and other RMI authorities.

Ebon Mayor Marie Davis Milne called on the RMI government to delay bringing home Marshallese living in Hawaii, the US and elsewhere because of the threat of spreading Covid-19 to people in the RMI.

“Keep our borders closed” was Milne’s message.
Milne took to the microphone at last Friday’s briefing session organized by the Chief Secretary’s Office. By Monday, a video of her remarks opposing repatriation of Marshallese had gone viral, with over 900 shares on social media — an indication of the concern in the Marshallese community about repatriation.

“Why are we rushing, to spend over $3 million (to return) three hundred some people?” she asked, speaking about the group that is scheduled to arrive this Saturday to start a three-week quarantine at Kwajalein. This is the first group that will pave the way for more to follow from the United States, which is now seeing Covid-19 cases spike to their highest levels ever.

“There are thousands and thousands of people here in the Marshall Islands and we are terrified,” said the mayor of concern in the community about repatriation of Marshallese. “Are we not allowed to feel safe in our home?”

Milne said the Marshall Islands isn’t ready for the infection to spread here. If it does, it undermine health and other services, especially for the outer islands, she pointed out.

“We are not ready,” she said. “People will go hungry on the outer islands and if we have sick people, they cannot come here to seek medical help because the planes and ship cannot go to bring them.”

She said the stranded Marshallese should remain where they are and wait for a better time to return.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal described himself as the most skeptical person when it comes to repatriating people from Covid-infected countries.

He was speaking to a large audience at last week Wednesday’s Pink Tea Party for breast cancer awareness. Despite earlier skepticism and support for keeping RMI’s borders closed, Niedenthal said he was now “feeling optimistic” seeing requirements and set up for quarantine on Kwajalein.

“The RMI has the strictest quarantine protocols anywhere,” he said. “It involves five weeks of quarantine and multiple Covid tests.”

He pointed out that many stranded Marshallese are struggling in Hawaii, living in public housing with extended family members. “They need to get home,” he said. “Covid is evil and it splits up families. We need to be compassionate with each other (to help each other in this time).”

He said the ministry and RMI authorities were working to make the repatriation “as safe as we possibly can.”

In other repatriation developments:
• A total of 223 USAG-KA workers and nine others have been released after successfully completing 21-day quarantine periods at the US Army base at Kwajalein.

The latest report provided by the Ministry of Health shows that a total of 280 people were repatriated through the USAG-KA quarantine system since June 9. Another 16 were scheduled to arrive earlier this week. Of the 280, two were returned to the US: one for discipline issues, the other an emergency medical situation.

Of the remaining 278, 223 USAG-KA workers successfully completed quarantine and multiple Covid-19 tests prior to being released to return to work at Kwajalein. Nine others — a range of Marshallese and various nationalities, including US Embassy and Australian Navy personnel — also completed quarantine at USAG-KA. Another 46 were still in quarantine as of earlier this week.

• A group of FSM citizens in Majuro will be flown back home this Friday on a chartered Air Marshall Islands flight, according to the FSM President’s Office.
The FSM government on Tuesday this week completed the last of its technical requirements to initiate repatriation of FSM citizens from Covid-19-free jurisdictions. The FSM States of Pohnpei and Kosrae will be accepting citizens stranded in the Marshall Islands on October 30.

Only FSM citizens will be repatriated on the flight, which the FSM government is chartering through Air Marshall Islands. All citizens will be tested for Covid-19 prior to arrival, and will submit themselves to standardized quarantine procedures in Pohnpei and Kosrae, to include additional Covid-19 testing prior to entry into the community, said the FSM President’s Office.

At the same time that the government was finalizing details on repatriation from the Marshall Islands, President David Panuelo spoke for approximately three hours in a teleconference with stranded FSM MiCare medical patients. The purpose of the teleconference was to give the stranded citizens the opportunity to hear from the President himself as to what the FSM is doing to assist FSM’s stranded citizens.

All of the MiCare patients, who went for overseas treatment in the Philippines, are currently in Guam, where most have been stuck since the FSM closed its borders in March.

While the President’s answers were broadly consistent with the information relayed to the public from the Office of the President’s Division of Public Information and the FSM Covid-19 Task Force’s Risk Communications team, such as that the 12 medical patients alone have received $470,000 in aggregate through per diems and other MiCare assistance, new information that President Panuelo announced is that the FSM is seriously looking into cooperation with the United States to conduct a humanitarian assistance flight on or around the time of Operation Christmas Drop. This usually happens in early December.

“We’re working with the US to see the possibility of chartering a US military aircraft, to see if it can coincide with the schedule of Operation Christmas Drop,” said Panuelo. “I will ask that the US cooperate with our parameters, such as that the crew is tested for Covid-19 and follow exemplary decontamination procedures. Medical patients, the two FSM Congress Senators, and diplomats from the United States, Japan, and Australia would still undergo the Pre-Quarantine procedures at a designated facility for 14 days, including Covid-19 testing several times, and then possibly arrive sometime in December.”

He cautioned the patients that “because of the rapidly evolving situation with Covid-19, I am not promising that this will happen. But I want you to know that we are seriously exploring this. I appreciate that you want to be home before Christmas, and while I regret that I cannot promise that because I must protect the FSM from the virus, we do care about our citizens stranded abroad.”

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