The Solomon Islands has recorded its first COVID-19 case, leaving just nine countries worldwide free of the virus.
The Pacific nation’s coronavirus-free status abruptly ended on Oct. 3 after an asymptomatic student tested positive during a routine check at the capital's Honiara International Airport. The student, one of over 400 previously stranded in the Philippines, was put in quarantine along with other close contacts, according to Xinhua News Agency.
The student had tested negative three times before boarding the repatriation flight.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the country's state of public emergency will be extended to Nov. 25, but confirmed there would be no national lockdown because the government is “confident of its capacity” to adequately prevent any potential spread.
The remaining two Philippines repatriation flights have been put on hold.
"It pains me to say that we have lost our COVID-19-free status despite our collective effort to prevent the pandemic from entering our country,” Sogavare said in a televised address, according to Xinhua News Agency. “The planning, preparation, simulation, and exercises have not been in vain, and the government is confident of its capacity to respond, contain, and manage the situation to ensure that the safety and well-being of the public are maintained.”
For months, criticism arose over the fact that the 400 or so pupils had yet to be flown back home.
Others, however, opposed the decision to finally organize the flights from the Philippines — a country with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia — for fear that the students would potentially bring COVID-19 cases to the islands.
"My government is well aware of the risks involved in repatriating our students from the Philippines. We are also aware that keeping our children in the Philippines exposes them to even higher risks,” Sogavare said. “As a responsible government, we cannot close our eyes to the plight of our children, and bringing them home was the humane thing to do.”
Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, all countries in the Asia-Pacific region, have yet to record a case of COVID-19, according to SBS. Neighbors Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Timor-Leste have reported 540, 32, and 28 cases, respectively.
Concerted efforts have been made by global health organizations and countries like Australia and New Zealand to keep the virus from infiltrating the Pacific, for fear that COVID-19 could inundate the region’s already poor health systems. Inadequate health infrastructure, widespread poverty, and poor water and sanitation all contribute to the region’s over-representation of the burden of infectious and non-communicable diseases.
In the past few years, significant measles outbreaks have spread through Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji.