Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — When the sixth group of 59 persons arrives at the Army base in Kwajalein May 11 for a two-week quarantine, the Marshall Islands will have repatriated more than 300 people since it started last October.
But with the country’s borders closed for more than one year due to Covid-19, businesses in the Marshall Islands are becoming increasingly desperate for lack of ability to bring in supervisors and workers with skills unavailable locally.
The Marshall Islands Chamber of Commerce during the last week of April asked local businesses to provide lists of key personnel they need to bring in so the chamber can provide detailed information to the government’s National Disaster Committee for repatriation consideration.
The Office of the Chief Secretary said October is the target date for kicking off repatriation of business workers. But many in the private sector are questioning further delay in beginning to include key business personnel in repatriation planning.
The Marshall Islands is following one of the strictest entry requirements in the world, which has so far kept the Marshall Islands COVID-free.
To date, stranded Marshallese and staff for diplomatic missions in Majuro have been approved to return. They all are undergoing a managed, two-week quarantine — currently at the Aqua Palms Hotel in Waikiki in Honolulu. They are required to have three COVID tests prior to their departure to the Marshall Islands.
The U.S. Army Garrison on Kwajalein Atoll has made facilities available for Marshallese repatriation, together with the weekly groups of Army personnel who arrived for a two-week quarantine. Both the Marshallese and U.S. Army groups follow the same protocols, which include two additional COVID tests prior to their release.
Currently people in repatriation groups do not require prior COVID vaccinations to come to the Marshall Islands. But vaccinations may open the opportunity for people to quarantine in Majuro instead of Kwajalein, at the Ministry of Health and Human Services COVID quarantine facility.
On April 28, the largest repatriation group to date — 77 Marshallese — was released from quarantine at Kwajalein when all tested negative after their four weeks of quarantine in Hawaii and Kwajalein. Another 59 people — 57 Marshallese and two diplomats — went into quarantine in Honolulu April 27 in anticipation of a scheduled May 11 departure to Kwajalein on the United Airlines Island Hopper flight.
United Airlines has scheduled four Island Hopper flights for June, the most in one month since the Marshall Islands COVID border closure went into effect in early March 2020. Most months since then have seen a single flight, or at most two.
With only one Marshallese repatriation group currently scheduled for June, the primary reason for the dramatically increased number of flights is the substantial out-bound travel to the United States.
Chief Secretary Kino Kabua said the question of whether a second repatriation group will be added in light of the additional flights in June is being discussed by the National Disaster Committee.
In the meantime, the business community is pressing the government to start allowing businesses opportunities to bring in workers. John Mason, finance manager and consultant at K and K Island Pride Supermarket, is co-chairman with Deputy Chief Secretary Abacca Anjain-Maddison of a working group that aims to advise the National Disaster Committee on bringing businesspeople through the government’s repatriation system. Mason said after 14 months of border closure, there is increasing urgency in the need of businesses to bring in key workers.
“At the top of this list for many [in the private sector] is the need to maintain, replace or increase our essential work force,” he said.
Since starting in October with the first Marshallese repatriation group, the NDC has focused almost entirely on RMI citizens stranded abroad, diplomats for various embassies, and essential hospital workers.
Mason said it is time to elevate business worker needs on the government’s agenda.
“We have formed an ad hoc committee to look at how government can help the businesses of the RMI to secure a portion of space in future repatriation groups coming from or returning from other countries for work in the RMI,” Mason said. “Many of the essential workers already here would like to return home but need a way back to continue the job. These essential workers are vital to the continuation of businesses and cannot be replaced through local hire due to specific skill sets and experience.” mbj