Marshall Islands prepares to repatriate citizens

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MAJURO — The Marshall Islands government has begun discussions that will likely set in motion a phased return of the hundreds of its citizens stranded in the United States and other countries since the western Pacific nation closed its borders on March 8 to prevent spread of Covid-19.

The aim, at least initially, is to use the U.S. Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll missile test facility for quarantine of future returning citizens, said the country’s health minister.

The Marshall Islands is one of a few countries globally to remain coronavirus-free.

The first person from the United States to come to Majuro since the ban on inbound travel was enforced on March 8 is expected to arrive in early August following an extended quarantine period at the U.S. Army base at Kwajalein.

As of this week, the Army base had repatriated over 50 of its workers in six groups, ranging in size from the initial group in the second week of June of five people to its largest, at 16. All are the subject of a 21-day quarantine and multiple Covid-19 tests.

Last week’s group included 15 Kwajalein workers and one new staff member for the U.S. Embassy in Majuro, according to Health Minister Bruce Bilimon, who also confirmed that the cabinet had approved this with the change in protocol that the Majuro-bound U.S. official will remain in a quarantine situation on USAG-KA for 28 days. This is one week longer than the 21-day quarantine protocol that governs the quarantine for incoming American base workers.

 

At the beginning of July, the government’s National Disaster Committee at the behest of the Ministry of Health and based on out-of-control Covid-19 spread in the United States, had requested USAG-KA to temporarily halt its repatriation process for 30 days. The Army command said it would not stop unless it was instructed to by the cabinet, according to Majuro officials. The cabinet weighed in to gain an extension of quarantine time for the U.S. embassy staff member but has otherwise supported the repatriation effort for the U.S. Army, which has opened the opportunity of using its facilities for repatriating Marshallese citizens.

 Bilimon said the cabinet is currently in discussion about future repatriation. He said he expects within the next two weeks, a plan will be developed for moving forward with the possible start of repatriation in the September-October period. “We are not comfortable to do it before then,” he said.

He said the aim, at least initially, is to use secure quarantine facilities at Kwajalein, which the Army has offered to provide. Key elements of any repatriation will be Covid-19 testing prior to departure to the Marshall Islands, quarantine prior to getting on an airplane and quarantine in the Marshall Islands, and multiple Covid-19 tests prior to release.

Bilimon noted that some countries are not testing returning citizens for Covid-19 prior to their departures from other countries. “Under our protocol, testing is a must,” he said. “You can’t get on a plane without a negative test result.”

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