This Nation Kept COVID Out. Now, a 'State of Disaster'

Pacific archipelago of Kiribati sees an outbreak after allowing citizen missionaries to come home
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 29, 2022 6:00 AM CST
This Nation Kept COVID Out. Now, a 'State of Disaster'
In this March 30, 2004, file photo, the Tarawa atoll in Kiribati is seen in an aerial view.   (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

When the coronavirus began spreading around the world, the remote Pacific archipelago of Kiribati closed its borders, ensuring the disease didn't reach its shores for nearly two full years. Kiribati finally began reopening this month, allowing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to charter a plane to bring home 54 of the island nation's citizens. Many of those aboard were missionaries who'd left Kiribati before the border closure to spread the faith abroad for what's commonly known as the Mormon church. Officials tested each returning passenger three times in nearby Fiji, required that they be vaccinated, and put them in quarantine with additional testing when they arrived home. It wasn't enough.

More than half the passengers tested positive for the virus, which has now slipped out into the community and prompted the government to declare a state of disaster. An initial 36 positive cases from the flight had ballooned to 181 cases by Jan. 22, per the AP. Kiribati and several other small Pacific nations were among the last places on the planet to have avoided any virus outbreaks, thanks to their remote locations and strict border controls. But their defenses appear no match against the highly contagious omicron variant. "Generally speaking, it's inevitable. It will get to every corner of the world," says Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. "It's a matter of buying enough time to prepare and getting as many people vaccinated as possible."

Only 33% of Kiribati's 113,000 people are fully vaccinated, while 59% have had at least one dose, according to the online scientific publication Our World in Data. And like many other Pacific nations, Kiribati offers only basic health services. Dr. Api Talemaitoga, who chairs a network of Indigenous Pacific Island doctors in New Zealand, says Kiribati has only a couple of intensive care beds in the entire nation, and in the past relied on sending its sickest patients to Fiji or New Zealand for treatment. He said that given the limitations of Kiribati's health system, his first reaction when he heard about the outbreak was, "Oh, my lord." Before this month's outbreak, Kiribati had reported just two virus cases: crew members on an incoming cargo ship that ultimately wasn't permitted to dock.

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The Kiribati charter flight wasn't the first time missionaries returning home to a Pacific island nation tested positive for COVID-19. In October, a missionary returning to Tonga from service in Africa was reported as the country's first—and so far only—positive case after flying home via New Zealand. Like those returning to Kiribati, he also was vaccinated and quarantined. Tonga is desperately trying to prevent any outbreaks as it recovers from a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami earlier this month. Kiribati has now opened multiple quarantine sites, declared a curfew, and imposed lockdowns. President Taneti Maamau said on social media that the government is using all its resources to manage the situation, and he has urged people to get vaccinated.

(More Kiribati stories.)

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