For more than two years, as the coronavirus swept across most nations in wave after wave of infection, the virus failed to reach some of the most remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. Even as cases emerged in places as remote as Antarctica, these islands have remained largely untouched by the pathogen — through geographic isolation and strict guidelines.
As the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads at a rate and infectivity unmatched during the pandemic, it has gained a foothold in a number of island nations.
Some are registering their first cases spreading among the local population since the pandemic began. Others, who have sustained single-digit case counts through much of the pandemic, are watching with concern as local outbreaks spread.
One of the most graphic examples is Kiribati, a collection of atolls and reef islands scattered across an area of the Pacific Ocean roughly twice the size of Alaska.
The country of around 119,000 people has kept its borders closed for much of the pandemic. Until recently it had only registered two Covid cases from a returning ship in May. The crew was quarantined and no outbreak was recorded.
But when the first international flight to Kiribati in 10 months arrived from Fiji last week, 36 passengers tested positive for the virus. The infection later spread to a security worker at a quarantine center and two other people, according to national broadcaster Radio Kiribati.
Now Tarawa, the capital, will be locked down on Monday. Most residents will only be able to leave their homes to buy groceries. All workplaces will be closed except for those providing basic and emergency services.
In Tonga, where relief workers are rushing to deliver life-saving supplies after a volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami that devastated the island nation, recovery efforts have been complicated by the coronavirus-free status.
The nation has reported just one coronavirus case throughout the pandemic, and local authorities have expressed concerns about taking in foreign aid workers who may be carrying the virus.
Solomon Islands also reported their first community broadcasts this week. The source was a boat that had arrived illegally from Papua New Guinea with an infected passenger on the island of Ontong Java, authorities said.
“Dear Solomon Islanders, what we feared has come true,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said on Tuesday. “We now have community transmission of Covid-19 in Ontong Java.”
“Expect the number of infected to increase rapidly in the coming days and weeks,” he added. “Expect some people could get seriously ill. And also expect that some people might even lose their lives.”
A day later, community transmission was detected in the capital, Honiara, forcing local authorities to impose an immediate lockdown. As of Friday, there were 169 positive cases in the country but only 56 beds for Covid patients.
Palau recently reported a coronavirus outbreak after nearly two virus-free years. As of Friday, there were 183 active cases and more than 600 people in quarantine. The country suspended schools for two weeks and banned community gatherings.
And Samoa is considering canceling repatriation flights after a plane from Australia landed in the country with 10 passengers who tested positive. They are all isolating and there is no indication yet that the virus has spread through the community.
Still, the cases represent the highest number of coronavirus cases the island nation has seen since the pandemic began. Previously, Samoa had only reported two cases in quarantine.