In February, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to take hold, four people set sail for one of the most remote places on Earth: a small camp on Kure Atoll, on the edge of the uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian islands.
There, more than 2,200 km from Honolulu, they lived in isolation for nearly nine months as they worked to restore the island’s environment.
Isolated from the rest of the planet, their world was limited to a small patch of sand halfway between the American continent and Asia. With no television or Internet access, his only information came from satellite text messages and occasional emails.
They learned of the pandemic in the midst of their own isolation, but have not experienced any of the seismic upheavals that the Covid-19 virus has caused around the world.
Now they are back, resurfacing in changed societies that might feel as strange today as the island’s isolation in March.
They should adapt to wearing face masks, staying indoors, and seeing friends without giving hugs or handshakes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, but I started reading Stephen King’s book The Stand, which is about a disease outbreak, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is this what it’s going to be like coming home? ‘”Said Charlie Thomas, one of four workers on the island. “All these… precautions, these things, sick people everywhere. It was very strange to think about that. “
The group was part of an effort by the state of Hawaii to maintain the island’s fragile ecosystem in Kure, which is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest contiguous protected environment in the country. The public cannot land anywhere on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Kure is the only island in the northern part of the archipelago that is administered by the state, and the rest are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. A former Coast Guard station, the atoll is home to seabirds, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and coral reefs teeming with sea turtles, tiger sharks and other marine life.
Two field teams go there each year, one for the summer and one for the winter. Their main job is to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species and clean up debris like fishing nets and plastic that washes up the shoreline.
Thomas, the youngest member of the team at 18, grew up in a coastal town in New Zealand and spent much of her free time with seabirds and other wildlife. He finished school a year earlier to start his first job as a deckhand for an organization dedicated to cleaning up the shores before volunteering for the summer season at Kure Atoll.
The expedition was the first time she had been away from home for so long, but she was ready to unwind.
“I was sick of social media, I was sick of everything that was going on,” she said. “And I thought, you know, I’m so excited to get rid of my phone, to lose touch with everything … I don’t need to see all the horrible things that are happening right now.”
When Thomas left New Zealand for Hawaii, there were no nearby virus cases that he could remember. By the time he left Honolulu for Kure, the virus was beginning to “get a little closer” to the islands.
“We just watched stories on TV and that sort of thing,” he said. “But, you know, we’re leaving. We are going. It wasn’t really a big concern for us. “
Once in Kure, getting a complete picture of what was happening in the world was difficult.
“I think I really didn’t know what to think because we were getting so many different answers to the questions we were asking,” he said.
Thomas is now in a quarantined hotel in Auckland, where he lives with his parents, sister, and a dog named Benny. He will miss the cuddles and “squashing five people on a bench for dinner,” he said.
American Matthew Butschek, who was also in Kure, said it would take time to adjust to the changed world they had returned to.
In quarantine, he looked out the window of his cabin in Honolulu and saw school-age children playing on rocks and climbing trees, all wearing face masks. It reminded him of apocalyptic movies.
“It is not normal for me. But they all say, yeah, this is what we do now. This is how we live, ”he said.
Helped by geographic isolation and rapidly and purposefully closed borders, the Pacific remains the least infected region in the world. But forced isolation has devastated the Pacific economies.
But there are major fears that if the virus takes hold in the region, it could devastate island communities, which have limited public health infrastructure (Vanuatu started the pandemic with only two ventilators in the entire country) and populations with high rates of comorbidities. . such as diabetes and heart disease.
Most of the Covid-free nations left on earth are in the Pacific, but they are starting to decline as repatriation flights bring stranded citizens home. In the past month, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa recorded their first confirmed infections.
Other Pacific islands, such as Guam and French Polynesia, have had large numbers of cases seeded by military and police deployments by the colonial powers of the United States and France.
The small and remote island nations and territories of Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Norfolk Island and Pitcairn Island are still believed to be free of the virus.
with Associated Press
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