Covid-19: The unsung stories of nations with ‘zero’ cases

BY: Chaitra Arjunpuri

Covid-19: The unsung stories of nations with ‘zero’ cases

When Covid-19 hit China and eventually spread to Southeast Asia, other countries, particularly the West, looked keenly wondering if they would ever have to face the virus on their doorsteps. However, very soon the coronavirus became a pandemic not sparing any country, whether developed or underdeveloped. While the US, Mexico, Brazil, India, are still hotbeds of Covid-19, there are countries that have been not touched by the novel coronavirus. 

As of August 10, 12 countries in the world have not reported any Covid-19 cases, according to the tracking system generated by Johns Hopkins University, or Worldometers.com. JHU’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) is observing the proliferation of the virus that shows data through a live dashboard. These few countries and territories are mostly remote Pacific Island countries in Oceania such as the island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, and two countries in Asia. The virus also has not set foot in Antarctica, where there is no constant human population.

The 12 countries without Covid-19 are Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Turkmenistan, and North Korea. To begin with, most of these island nations and countries are self-isolators and have been practicing the rule of social-distancing for ages. Though surprising, none of these countries have reported even a single case since the virus was first detected in December. Let’s take a look at these countries:

Kiribati

The remote Pacific island nation in Oceania with a population of 119,451 has no reported cases of the novel coronavirus largely because of their geographical location. The virus has not reached its islands due to their remoteness. Kiribati is 4,481 km away from New Zealand when the Kiwis were among the world’s faraway countries affected by the virus. Even though there were no cases public emergency was declared and schools were closed for two weeks in April. 

A project under the World Bank’s US$2.5 million funding is preparing the country for Covid-19 and other future public health threats. It also supports telehealth services to help Kiribati connect its four hospitals and many clinics across the islands to a centralized health information database and communication system, a complex challenge in one of the most remote and dispersed countries on earth.

The country has sealed all its borders as part of its response to the pandemic and has imposed restrictions even on fishing vessels.  

Marshall Islands

The western Pacific island nation in Oceania with a population of 59,190 has not reported any cases. It was reported that on March 21, the only international flight connecting with the Marshall Islands suspended its service for at least three weeks. 

The country even refused to allow passengers and crew inside the Majuro airport when a regular flight developed mechanical problems. The authorities declined the request by the airlines to allow its “124 passengers and crew members inside the departure lounge of the terminal” as the government had placed a ban on incoming air arrivals since March 8 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The passengers “stayed on the tarmac and slept on board” till the next morning before a rescue flight came to transport them to Honolulu. 

The island has imposed strict control on fishing vessels from entering Majuro Atoll, the capital of the Marshall Islands, which was the busiest tuna transshipment port in the world before the outbreak of Covid-19. Container ships and fuel tankers are put in a 14-day quarantine period at sea before arriving in ports in the Marshall Islands.

Micronesia

Federated States of Micronesia in Oceania with a population of 115,030 was quick to implement travel bans in early February. It imposed a complete restriction on those traveling from China. The nation has also imposed a ban on fishing vessels.

Nauru

Nauru in Oceania is the smallest country in the world after Monaco, and with a population of 10,823 it is the smallest in population after Tuvalu. The island nation in the Pacific Ocean is almost 300 km from any place. Banaba Island, part of Kiribati, is the nearest land which is nearly 298 km. The nearest major city with direct flights to the island is Brisbane in Australia which is 3,341 km south-west. The island is also one of the least-visited countries in the world. According to a tour operator, the nation gets only “160 tourists a year”.

The country which has only one hospital with no ventilators and scarcity of nurses imposed a ban on travelers from China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran in early March. Its national airlines suspended all flights to Fiji, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands in mid-March. It reduced its frequency of flying to Brisbane, Nauru Airlines’ only other route, from three times a week to once a fortnight. 

People, mainly its residents, coming back from Australia were put in a quarantine of 14 days in local hotels. President Lionel Aingimea called this as “capture and containment”. “We’re keeping things at the border. We’re using our airport as the border and our transit facilities as part of our border,” Aingimea said

Like other islands in Oceania Nauru has also banned fishing vessels in its waters.   

Palau

Palau in Oceania with a population of 18,094 has no cases of Covid-19. The country had imposed strict restrictions on travel and has a ban on fishing vessels. 

The island is planning to open its borders for travel from September under a strict protocol on 14 days of quarantine. It will continue with its ban on travelers from Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China.  

Samoa

The island nation in Oceania with a population of 198,413 has been on lockdown since March last week. The country imposed a state of emergency and suspended all international travels along with a ban on fishing vessels.  

The island nation was devastated last year by a measles epidemic that came from New Zealand and killed over 80 people, is in no hurry to ease its restrictions.  Planning to ease travel restrictions from this month for travelers, the island has ordered to submit a negative Covid-19 test three days before arrival at Faleolo airport. 

It has also amended its state of emergency regarding trading restrictions in the first week of August. All businesses are ordered to close on Sundays with the exception of small shops, which can open from 3 pm to 7 pm. Customers can make a purchase in these small shops that have no doors, through its windows. 

Solomon Islands

Being one of the least visited countries in the world, the Solomon Islands in Oceania with a population of 686,884 can be entered from its neighboring countries, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu, through direct flights. 

Like other Pacific island nations, the island nation imposed a strict travel restriction since early February. It required arriving travelers to produce a medical certificate with negative Covid-19 and a 14-day quarantine. 

It tightened its maritime border with Papua New Guinea and police continuously patrol the country’s western border as its neighboring country has a rapid increase in the coronavirus cases. 

The nation had declared a state of public emergency in March and has extended it till November to keep the island free from the pandemic.  

Tuvalu

Known to be the least visited country in the world, Tuvalu in Oceania, with a population of 11, 793, sees less than 200 tourists in a year. 

The island nation declared a state of public emergency and has imposed travel restriction and ban on fishing vessels.  

Vanuatu

Vanuatu in Oceania with a population of 307,145 imposed strict restrictions like other island nations since February.  

The island nation declared a state of emergency and has extended it till December as a response to Covid-19 and Cyclone Harold, a category-five storm that ravaged parts of the country in April. It also requires a medical certificate of negative Covid-19 and a quarantine of 14-days for travelers arriving.   

Tonga

The island nation Tonga in Oceania with a population of 105,695 has been stern with travel restriction since February. As Fiji reported its first case of Covid-19, Tonga closed its borders to outsiders. It allowed only those foreigners who were leaving the island on flights to their own countries. 

The small island nation which is about two hours flight away from Fiji declared a state of emergency in March and has extended it till August 31. The island imposed various limits on activities, including a curfew from midnight to 5 am. Public gatherings are limited to 50-100 people.  

The island began repartition flights to bring back Tongans from Fiji in mid-July. The flights had a limit of fewer than 60 passengers who were kept under strict quarantine at a hotel in Nuku’alofa. The police guarded both Fua’amotu International Airport and the hotel in Nuku’alofa and Tongan residents were temporarily banned from entering both the venues. 

Turkmenistan

Perchedon the Caspian Sea coast and bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, Turkmenistan is one of the least populated nations in Asia, with a population of 6,031,200. The country also ranks utterly low on human rights and the Human Rights Watch has called it one of the “most repressive countries” in the world.

However, the Central Asian country said to have extremely poor healthcare, imposed restrictions, and closed most of its border, besides canceling several flights, including all flights from and to China, in early February. Daily life in the country appears to be normal, as, in mid-April, hundreds of soccer fans crowded a stadium at Ashgabat to watch domestic teams play.

Different mainstream Western media outlets claimed on March 31 and April that Turkmenistan had “banned” the word “coronavirus.” NPR ran an update proclaiming that “Turkmenistan Has Banned Use Of The Word ‘Coronavirus’,” and so did Newsweek and ABC, among many others. As the country has a history of hiding facts, especially those relating to public health and outbreaks, including the plague, the world thought that the country is again hiding the pandemic outbreak. However, The Diplomat clarified that it was not the country but the “Turkmenistan media” had censored “themselves on ‘coronavirus’”.

North Korea

Last but not the least in the list is North Korea in Asia with a population of 25,778,816. In spite of having a 1,416-km border with China, North Korea claims zero coronavirus cases.  

The country bordered by China and Russia in the north and east, and South Korea in the south, is already isolated from the rest of the world came to a standstill when it sealed the borders in January, according to a Bloomberg report. The borders haven’t been reopened yet. It also implemented strict restrictions for those, including its own nationals, arriving in the country to undergo a strict one or two-month quarantine.

General Robert Abrams, commander of US Forces Korea, told reporters in a teleconference briefing on March 13 that “Their armed forces have been fundamentally – been on lockdown for about 30 days – and only recently have they started routine training again. They didn’t fly an airplane for 24 days.”

South Korean sources were quoted saying that the coronavirus has indeed spread in the North through its Chinese border, but Pyongyang’s state control over the media makes it impossible to confirm the claims made by the South.

Even though the country has state-sponsored free healthcare, North Koreans are particularly more vulnerable to respiratory infections that result in more than 11% of deaths yearly, according to WHO reports. The citizens also have top concurrent ailments, including heart disease which is an extensive source of death in the country. Reuters reported that most political and health experts agree that they are unconvinced that North Korea has zero cases of coronavirus. However, it can be logical to think that North’s isolation from the rest of the world may be helping it to avoid Covid-19.

A life without Covid-19

The most interesting thing to note is that almost all the small Pacific Island countries declared a national emergency and closed their borders early. The very seclusion of small populations spread across the big ocean, which had always been a drawback for them, became their protecting shield from the pandemic. Experts feel that had there been an outbreak of coronavirus in any of these small islands it would have been a major disaster, as many would have succumbed to it. The rate of concurrent ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and breathing problem, are very high in these nations.  

Living and getting stuck in these isolated nations has its own drawbacks. Most of the island nations in the Pacific depend on the tourism industry. Even though they have zero cases of Covid- 19, they also have zero tourists visiting since March. 

Just because the pandemic has not set foot in these countries does not mean that it has not entered the lives of the inhabitants in one manner or the other. A life in a nation without coronavirus cannot be a life without it. It can be like a dark “shadow following them when the sun is shining brightly down”. Even though everything is fine, the fear of the pandemic will be on their lips and minds. They will silently view a calamity unfurling from the outside. As Zoe Stephens, a blogger, notes in one of her posts, “And you’re sat on a beach helpless watching the world fall apart with nothing you can do, wondering if your friends and family are both physically and mentally safe.”

Furthermore, these islands and countries cannot stay locking themselves from the rest of the world for too long, as they depend heavily on imported goods for survival. However, it is highly likely that these nations will be the very last after Antarctica that the virus reaches in the world.  

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