By Giff Johnson
Although the Marshall Islands has no confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, residents are increasingly on edge about the possibility of its introduction despite a government ban on inbound travelers.
This week saw the Speaker call an extraordinary two-day special session of parliament to spotlight reports of an announced Nauru Airlines flight to return Marshallese USP students stranded in Fiji, as well as a container vessel given an exemption from the 14-day quarantine required for ships prior to entering the country.
Meanwhile, Marshallese citizens and residents who are stranded in Fiji, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, Philippines and Hawaii have been seeking ways to return home to Majuro, including lobbying government authorities about options to return.
With the exception of the FSM, all these locations are facing serious problems with spread of Covid-19.
Worry flared this week on social media about next week's only scheduled United Airlines flight to Majuro and Kwajalein for April, with some local residents calling for public demonstrations if exemptions are made to the travel ban allowing passengers in.
This prompted the government Chief Secretary's office to issue a special public announcement broadcast on local radio to quell this concern, confirming that the April 13-14 United roundtrip Island Hopper service will only take passengers out of the Marshall Islands, not bring any in.
United's regular air service has been suspended since March 20.
"Just even hearing United Airlines is coming back is causing panic for some community members so the National Emergency Operations Center (statement) is clarifying this," said Chief Secretary Kino Kabua.
"The National Emergency Operations Center would like to advise the general public that although there will be some airlines and flights landing at Amata Kabua International Airport, for example, United Airlines landing on 13 and 14 April, no passengers will be allowed off the flights," said the announcement from Kabua's office.
"These flights are only here to pick up passengers."
The worry about next week's United flight was only one of the red flags that arose this week with regard to inbound travelers.
After government authorities called in the US Coast Guard to help search for the three missing fishermen lost at sea near Kwajalein Atoll, the US Embassy sought an exemption from the travel ban to allow the crew of the Coast Guard plane to overnight at the US Army base at Kwajalein Sunday.
The issue was taken up at a hastily called National Disaster Committee (NDC) meeting Saturday afternoon. Ministry of Health officials opposed granting an exemption to the Coast Guard crew, saying the travel ban should be fully enforced and the crew could stay at Wake Island.
In light of the search and rescue mission, the NDC voted to allow the search and rescue crew to stay on Kwajalein provided they followed a strict quarantine protocol supervised by Ministry of Health doctors.
But Sunday it was learned Kwajalein Mayor Hirata Kabua stepped in and prevented the crew from getting off the plane at Kwajalein after their search for the missing boat, enforcing the strict entry restriction set down by the government's travel advisory number 11.
The "blips" kept hitting the radar. On Monday, Nauru Airlines CEO Geoff Bowmaker asked Marshall Islands authorities for "landing approval" for a special "repatriation" flight this week to return Marshallese USP students from Suva and pick up some Australian citizens for a flight home.
That flight was scrubbed the next day by Bowmaker, who said the Suva lockdown because of Covid-19 made it impossible to organize outbound passengers.
But Bowmaker's initial landing request caught authorities by surprise.
The Chief Secretary said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, its embassy in Fiji and government authorities in Majuro have been in an ongoing discussion of the situation of Marshall Islands students in Suva, following the recent closure of the USP campus.
But, she added, "we haven't come up with a decision" regarding the six-to-eight students who are stranded in Suva, most living temporarily at the Suva Embassy.
Nitijela (Parliament) Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who had adjourned the parliament nearly a month ago until August, called the body back to session Wednesday and Thursday this week in an unusual move.
"The government is not being transparent (about coronavirus issues)," Speaker Kedi said Wednesday. "I am calling Nitijela back for the purposes of transparency and stopping (Nauru Airlines) from doing a charter flight."
The two-day parliament session included a six-hour committee of the whole session for the National Disaster Committee to brief the members on developments.
Covid-19 "going wild in Fiji" motivated the Speaker's concern about the proposed flight to return students from Fiji to Majuro, which Nauru Airlines said was in response to a recent discussion between Marshall Islands President David Kabua and Nauru President Lionel Aingimea.
At Wednesday's session, however, Cabinet Ministers Alfred Alfred, Jr. and Kessai Note said there was never any discussion in Cabinet about a charter to return students from Fiji.
Ultimately, Nauru Airlines did fly a special flight into Majuro Friday to pick up missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and several Australians for a return flight to Nauru and Brisbane.
No passengers or crew deplaned Friday in keeping with the government's travel ban.
Concern was also expressed at the parliament session about the container vessel Kota Hakim being issued an exemption from the 14-day quarantine requirement prior to entering Majuro last weekend.
The vessel had arrived Majuro from Lautoka, Fiji the city where Fiji's first Covid-19 cases were confirmed, and arrived in Majuro in less than a week.
It was later learned that most of the containers on the vessel were for Kiribati, which had refused the vessel entry because it had not met a similar 14-day Covid-19 quarantine prevention requirement.
During the parliament session, Majuro MP Steven Phillip said all ships should have to wait 10 miles outside Majuro Atoll until they meet the existing 14-day quarantine requirement before off-loading.