“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Majuro, Marshall Islands” by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

marshall islands
Jaluit Atoll Lagoon, Marshall Islands; Keith Polya

corona samMy quarantine encompasses thirty miles of road. It has an ocean view to one side, lagoon to the other. I live on Majuro, a narrow coral atoll and the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, one of the few nations yet to report a case of COVID-19. We are preparing, making hand-washing stations of buckets and pipes, making masks, and making plans. A Constitution Day webcast replaced the usual parade. Graduations have mostly gone virtual. Some restaurants have limited hours or gone takeout only due to reduced demand; the bars don’t seem to be suffering. The groceries stores have implemented limits on food and cash returned from personal and payroll checks, but shelves have been barer when ocean conditions delayed the ships, and the Land Grant program at the college where I work has begun distributing vegetables and fish. I started building reserves of non-perishable goods—including cat food—in January. Cash has grown more tattered than usual and jammed up two of three ATMs on island; the courier who usually comes from Guam has not been able to stop here for a few months.

Thirty miles already exceeds the limited horizons of my friends elsewhere in quarantine, but I can go further than that. I can travel to other islands by boat or Air Marshall Islands. I can leave the country, but I can’t come back until the government decides to stop renewing the current travel advisory. In the second half of last year, Dengue Fever overwhelmed the local hospital. They admitted more patients than the usual number of beds; they sent others with the fever home, even if they were foreigners like me living alone. Nurses worked double shifts and the Ministry of Health called in school nurses to help. Case number declined the last few months, but people may be avoiding the hospital from fear of COVID-19. After the announcement of a suspected case, the hospital stayed nearly empty for weeks. Even without an outbreak on island, many locals need regular treatment for diabetes, hypertension, and gout. Reliance on imported food—corned beef, instant ramen, and sugary drinks (or just the powder mixed with dry noodles)—exacerbates the rates of non-communicable diseases that themselves would increase the death rate should COVID-19 arrive on island.

Leaving the country is harder now. The island hopper, which stops here as part of its Honolulu-Guam route, has gone from four flights in each direction per week to one in each direction per month. May’s flights remain unconfirmed. In April, ground crew boarded the plane in Majuro despite agreed procedures; they had to spend two weeks quarantined in the residence halls of the national college’s rural campus, which usually hosts vocational training and Land Grant research. United Airlines now wants to change the procedures so their crew can board to assist passengers and clean.

When the U.S. State Department issued its Global Level 4 Health Advisory, the Director of the Nuclear Institute asked if I had to comply and return to the US. I noted they were not about to send the military after me. Though some of the American faculty at the college decided to return early and teach the rest of the semester online, it was never a consideration for me. Going from a country with no cases of a dangerous disease to one in which cases continue rising seems the height of irrationality. I have family in the U.S., but my risking illness would do nothing to protect them. Besides, international travel with cats takes a good deal of advanced planning.

The Nuclear Institute maintains archives of the nuclear tests inflicted by the US on the Marshall Islands. There were sixty-seven detonations on Bikini and Enewetak, but the radiation spread to other islands and atolls. The records include survivors’ stories from seeing the bombs, to transporting, to effects on their health today. Marshallese mothers have birthed and buried hundreds of jellyfish babies—boneless with transparent skin. Thyroid disorders take voices and lives. The student club at the Institute visits survivors, sings to them with love and respect, shows them they are not forgotten. The current Compact of Free Association, which requires the US to provide financial assistance to the Marshall Islands and allows the Marshallese to settle in the US visa free, expires in 2023. The Compact also gives the US military exclusive rights to operate in the territory of the Marshall Islands.

I came here to teach at the national college in 2013. Starting a full-time academic job seven months after finishing my PhD, instead of relying on adjunct work, was more than worth an international move. I didn’t expect suddenly to be in one of the safest places in the world.

–May 14, 2020



Elizabeth Kate Switaj is the vice president for academic and student affairs at the College of the Marshall Islands. She is the author of James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods (Palgrave 2016) and a collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids (Paper Kite Press 2009). She holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast and an MFA from the now-defunct New College of California. Her writing has recently appeared in Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine and Indolent Books’ What Rough Beast series. Outside of work, she SCUBA dives and cares for her many formerly feral house cats.