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First Marshall Islanders in nearly 3 months return home

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MAJURO — Two Marshall Islanders who drifted at sea for 42 days and seven others were returned home Thursday, the first people allowed into this western Pacific nation since early-March after a Covid-19 travel ban was enforced.

They were greeted on arrival by authorities wrapped in full-body personal protection equipment and were tested for Covid-19 at the airports on Kwajalein and Majuro, then placed into 14-day quarantine.

The first islanders in nearly three months to return home arrived at the U.S. Army base at Kwajalein Atoll Thursday afternoon and were greeted by authorities in full personal protection equipment. From left: Godfrey Capelle, Connielynn Paul and Benjamin Thomas with a U.S. Army official on arrival at the airport. Photo by Hilary Hosia

The two fishermen from Ebeye Island, Godfrey Capelle and Benjamin Thomas, survived an ocean drift of over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) before washing up on Namoluk Atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia on May 14. Their repatriation was complicated by international and domestic Covid-19 travel bans in the FSM. Ultimately, they were transported by a FSM surveillance vessel from Chuuk to Pohnpei this week Wednesday in order to be in place for the arrival Thursday of an Air Marshall Islands charter flight dispatched to collect them and seven Marshall Islanders who had been stranded in Pohnpei since the travel ban went into effect March 8.

 “The fact that FSM is Covid-19 free has allowed for consideration by the National Disaster Committee to allow the repatriation of these Marshallese,” said government Chief Secretary Kino Kabua Thursday.

Details about the 42-day ordeal of the Ebeye fishermen were not available as they were put straight into quarantine at the US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll on their return Thursday. At Kwajalein, they were joined by Ebeye resident Connielynn Paul, who was one of the seven returned from Pohnpei.

The other six were flown to Majuro, where they also were put into a special quarantine facility managed by the Ministry of Health and Human Services.

 

 

The two Ebeye fishermen who survived a 42-day drift at sea and one other Marshall Islander went into a 14-day Covid-19 quarantine period at the US Army base at Kwajalein Thursday afternoon. Pictured, from left: An Army official in full personal protection equipment, Godfrey Capelle, Benjamin Thomas and Connielynn Paul outside their quarantine quarters at the base. Photo by Hilary Hosia

Capelle asked authorities at Kwajalein for a cell phone so he could call his wife on Ebeye Island, three miles away from the US Army base. Already away for two months from their families, Capelle and Thomas won’t see their nearby relatives for another 14 days until released from quarantine.

All nine Marshall Islanders were tested for Covid-19 in Pohnpei prior to boarding the special, and tested again on arrival in Kwajalein and Majuro before starting the 14-day quarantine, said Kabua. “Director of Public Health Dr. Frank Underwood advised the National Disaster Committee that although the FSM is Covid-19 free and there is little risk, the Marshall Islands should still take extra precautionary measures,” she said.

Thursday’s first repatriation of islanders is the start of a plan that will likely see the return of several hundred stranded Marshall Islanders in the United States and other countries, as well as hundreds of U.S. Army base personnel stranded in the US because of the travel ban that will hit the three-month mark in early June.

 

 

Ebeye fishermen Benjamin Thomas, left, and Godfrey Capelle, who survived a 42-day, 1,600 kilometer ocean drift were repatriated to the Marshall Islands Thursday where they immediately went into a Covid-19 14-day quarantine at the U.S. Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll. Photo by Hilary Hosia.

 “Early next month, the (government) will initiate discussions on the arrangements, including protocols, for Marshall Islands citizens stranded in Covid-19-affected countries (to return home),” said Kabua. “Part of this major decision to eventually allow our citizens back home will be contingent upon the completion of the quarantine, isolation and laboratory facilities on Majuro, where the main quarantine activity will take place.  Return of citizens will need to be done in batches of manageable numbers.”

 

The Marshall Islands remains one of a few nations globally without a confirmed case of Covid-19.

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