After remaining Covid-free for the duration of the pandemic, Kiribati has reopened its borders – only for two-thirds of passengers on the first international flight to arrive in ten months to test positive for the virus.
The island nation is now set to impose a four-day lockdown from Monday after the virus spread through the community.
The 54 passengers, 36 of whom were diagnosed with Covid after arriving from Fiji last Friday, have now been quarantined and are recovering well, authorities say.
But after a security guard at the quarantine center also tested positive on Tuesday, the island nation introduced a two-week curfew and other public health measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and travel passes outside the capital, Tarawa.
The security guard and two of his close contacts have also been quarantined while his home village has been placed in solitary confinement for two weeks.
Two more positive cases were detected in the community on Thursday, prompting the government to announce that a full lockdown would begin on Monday, with schools closed and people allowed to leave their homes only for essential services.
News of the Covid-positive arrivals and the security guard sent locals into a panic, especially as it was leaked to the public rather than officially announced.
“As parents, we are worried about our children because unlike us, they are not vaccinated and do not have access to a [a vaccine] on the island,” said Kareaua Nawaia, a 32-year-old schoolteacher and father of three.
The arrival of Covid-19 was inevitable, he noted, but added that the timing was avoidable given that Fiji is battling a third wave of coronavirus.
Others expressed concern about the delay in imposing the lockdown. Dr Tabutoa Eria, the first person to receive the Covid vaccine when he arrived in Kiribati in May 2021, wrote on Facebook that he “could [be] too late if you [the lockdown] come next week. Our beloved n beautiful pple pliz avoid unnecessary movements. The virus won’t budge if we don’t.
Questions have also been asked about how the passengers contracted the virus. All had been in pre-departure quarantine for two weeks before the flight and had undergone regular testing. They were only allowed on the flight after returning negative tests.
Last month, the Kiribati government said 93.4% of the population aged 18 and over had received their first dose of the Covid vaccine but only 53.1% had received a second dose.