In February, just as the coronavirus pandemic began to hit, four people sailed to one of the most remote places on Earth – a small camp on Kure Atoll, on the shores of the uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
There, more than 2,200 km from Honolulu, they live in isolation for nearly nine months while working to restore the island’s environment.
Separated from the rest of the planet, their world is confined to a tiny patch of sand midway between the US mainland and Asia. Without television or internet access, their only information comes from satellite text messages and occasional emails.
They know about the pandemic in the midst of their own isolation, but have not experienced any seismic upheaval caused by the Covid-19 worldwide.
Now they are back, reappearing into a changed society that may feel as alien today as the island isolation that took place in March.
They have to adjust to wearing face masks, stay indoors and meet friends without giving hugs or handshakes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, but I started reading the book The Stand by Stephen King, which was all about disease outbreaks, and I thought, ‘Geez, this is what it feels like to come home. ? “Said Charlie Thomas, one of the island’s four workers.” All this … prevention, these things, sick people everywhere. Very strange to think about. “
The group is part of the state effort Hawaii to safeguard the fragile island ecosystem of Kure, which is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest contiguous protected environment in the country. Communities are not permitted to land anywhere in the North West Hawaiian Islands.
Kure is the only island in the northern part of the archipelago that is administered by the state, the rest of which are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Formerly a Coast Guard station, this atoll is home to seabirds, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and coral reef teeming with turtles, tiger sharks and other marine life.
Two field teams go there every year, one for summer and one for winter. Their main job is to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species and clean up debris such as fishing nets and plastics that drift ashore.
Thomas, the youngest member of the 18-year-old team, grew up in a coastal town in New Zealand and spends most of his free time with seabirds and other wildlife. He finished school a year early to start his first job as a sailor for an organization dedicated to cleaning the coastline before volunteering for the summer at Kure Atoll.
The expedition was the first time she had been away from home in so long, but she was ready to cut ties.
“I’m sick of social media, I’m sick of everything that’s going on,” he said. “And I thought, you know, I’m really excited to get rid of my phone, lose touch with everything … I don’t have to look at all the terrible things that are going on right now.”
When Thomas left New Zealand for Hawaii, there were no nearby cases of the virus that he could remember. By the time he left Honolulu for Kure, the virus began to “creep closer” to the islands.
“We just saw stories on television and such,” he said. “But, you know, we are going. Go to. That’s not a big deal for us. “
Once in Kure, it’s hard to get a complete picture of what’s going on in the world.
“I don’t think I really know what to think because we get so many different answers to the questions we ask,” he said.
Thomas is now on hotel in quarantine in Auckland, where he lives with his parents, sister, and a dog named Benny. He would miss hugs and “squeezing five people on the stool for dinner,” he said.
American Matthew Butschek, who is also in Kure, says it will take time to adjust to the changing world they are returning to.
In quarantine, he looked out the window of his Honolulu cabin and saw school-age children playing on the rocks and climbing trees – all wearing masks. It reminded him of apocalyptic films.
“That’s not normal for me. But everyone is like, yeah, this is what we do now. This is how we live, “he said.
Aided by geographic isolation and borders that are rapidly and decisively closing, the Pacific remains least infected region on earth. But the isolation has been forced the devastated Pacific economy.
But there are significant fears that if the virus gains a foothold in the region, it could destroy island communities, which have a limited public health infrastructure – Vanuatu started a pandemic with only two ventilators across the country – and a population with high rates of comorbidity. , such as diabetes and heart disease.
Most of the remaining COVID-19-free countries on earth are in the Pacific, but this number is starting to dwindle, as repatriation flights bring displaced citizens home. In the past month, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Marshall Island, and Samoa has recorded its first confirmed infection.
Other Pacific Islands, like Guam and French Polynesia, had a large number of cases favored by the military and police deployments of the US and French colonial powers.
Small and remote island states and territories of Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Norfolk Island, and Pitcairn Island are believed to be still virus free.
with the Associated Press