Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

Kiribati’s approach, one of the poorest and furthest of all countries, shows how fragile and underdeveloped it is.

Small ribbons of green lie flat on the Central Pacific, the islands are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

The greenness of these little patches of land is explained as you descend and thousands, perhaps millions, of palm leaves come into view.

They seem to cover every square meter, except for some of the more urban parts of the capital, Tarawa.

These are coconut palms and they offer everything you need here: wood for boats and buildings, thatched roofs and floors, fibers for ropes and fabric.

Their fruit provides hydration and nutrition, and presumably even a newly discovered asset that makes it even more precious – it would fight the corona virus.



“We use moimoto to defend ourselves against the virus,” said Rooti Tianaira, a primary school teacher in Tarawa, referring to young coconut.

“It is very rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin A.”

The rumors about the effectiveness of the moimoto are self-evident: to date, there are no known cases of coronavirus in Kiribati, one of only 13 countries able to say this.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

“Our ancestors used to eat grated coconut and noni – another native fruit, known for its pungent taste but renowned health-promoting properties – for breakfast and for drinking sour grog (fermented coconut juice).

“They were strong, without any disease.

“So now these local fruits are used as medicine to build our immune system, that’s the idea. They’re being sold at roadside stalls.”

Wait, are coconuts sold in Kiribati? Almost the entire country is covered with coconut palms.

It is no exaggeration to say that they surpass the 116,000 inhabitants of the islands many times over.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

I think of clichés about the sale of sand to Arabs or ice cream to Eskimos, and it may be evidence of the power of crisis as a marketing tool.

After all, until a few weeks ago, we never knew how precious a toilet roll was for goods.

“Actually, selling coconuts in Tarawa is not uncommon,” said Rimon Rimon, a local journalist.

“Not everyone has their own coconut palm, especially in the more populated areas, so people who are out of work but with a tree at home sometimes sell coconuts.

“But say they can prevent coronavirus? That’s a new one for me!”



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

It is just one of the many “silly rumors” about the corona virus circulating in Kiribati, according to Mr Rimon, exacerbated by the recent growth of social media in a republic that, frankly, deserves its UN status at least developed country ( LDC).

“It’s a big problem here,” he says. “Most people have only recently gained access to the internet, and it just bombardes them with information.

“They don’t know how to distinguish fake news, so they promote what’s not true.

“The coconut is harmless, but there is also a rumor that kava can stop Covid-19,” said Mr. Rimon, referring to the mildly numbing drink popular on most Pacific islands.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

In fact, drinking kava would be a risky activity when it comes to infectious diseases.

It is usually drunk together, from a shared bowl in which cups are dipped, drunk, and re-baptized

When traditionally prepared, it is made by chewing the root of the Piper methysticum plant and mixing these fibrous wads – saliva and all – with water.

“That was a ridiculous rumor, and the authorities had to campaign to tell people this was not true,” Rimon says.

“I am an educated man, I have lived abroad, but many people here have not been exposed to the outside world. You would be surprised what they think is a problem.

“The government has no social media policy, so it’s difficult to determine where people get their information.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

“There are only two official sources of information for Covid-19 – press releases from the Department of Health and the President’s cabinet – but people share what they think could be true.

“The government needs to see how people access information, warn them that they will get in trouble if they spread rumors.”

Ms. Tianaira is one of those recent social media adopters and has been in digital contact with news since last year when she got her first smartphone and joined Facebook.

That she’s new to the internet is evident from some of the material she’s forwarding – gaudy animated gifs, pass-it-on prayers, giveaways.

The kind of things we saw on Hotmail and bulletin boards 20 years ago.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

And amidst such content, a more contemporary take on the genre of junk e-mail: loads of coronavirus disinformation.

Only the usual suspects are Ms. Tianaira: Israel has developed a vaccine; garlic can kill Covid-19; hand sanitizers are a fire hazard; that meat soup photo, and so on.

These are usually harmless, but one in particular is particularly reckless.

One morning, she sent a Facebook message asking if she would really receive the free laptop promised to her after forwarding a chain post.

After I softly abandon her, she asks, “How about the video of the bodies thrown into the sea? Is it fake too? ‘

In Kiribati, a video is circulating in which corpses are thrown off a boat, claiming that these are the bodies of coronavirus victims removed in New Zealand.

We in the developed world know that such a scenario is unlikely, but it is enough to instill fear among the emerging netizens of Kiribati.

“What about the fish?” Ms. Tianara wonders. “If they eat the bodies, wouldn’t they get infected?”

She is assured that this is impossible and that the claims of the video are certainly false.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

“Thank goodness,” she says. “I’ve been worried since I saw it a week ago. I have shared it with friends and we are afraid to eat fish. ‘

The land of Kiribati, which consists almost entirely of broken coral and with limited fresh water resources, is inhospitable for most crops and livestock.

“Our protein comes from the sea,” said Ms. Tianaira. “If the fish is poisoned, we’ll starve.”

Another rumor that caused fear and conflict spread after a sick foreigner landed from a visiting ship, leading to predictable chatter of the C word.

Kiribati maintains a nationwide state of emergency despite being free from Covid-19 on May 10, 2020 – nearly two months after banning all international flights.

A statement from President Taneti Maamau’s cabinet says, “Kiribati remains at Level 2 at the Kiribati COVID-19 Alert level, where there are currently no suspected COVID-19 cases in Kiribati.

The government recognizes that the people of Kiribati are very vulnerable to this virus as it lacks human resources and the ability to prevent and stop the spread of disease as soon as it enters Kiribati. “

International flights have been banned since March 20. Prior to the ban, anyone arriving from abroad must have completed a 14-day quarantine in a coronavirus-free country.

Kiribati

Passenger ships are also prohibited, but cargo ships are admitted after completing a 14-day offshore quarantine.

While not enforcing the government legally, it encourages social distancing in accordance with international standards – with the exception of church events. Municipalities continue as usual and prayer is part of the official coronavirus response.

The President’s Office says, “President Maamau calls on all respective Church leaders and all Kiribati citizens to remain united and remain firm in PRAYERS before God to protect and bless Kiribati in these troubling times.”

In an effort to prevent the spread of misinformation, the government has made it a criminal offense to share coronavirus-related information that has not been approved by the President or the Department of Health.

The president’s statement reads: “Only news from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services and the office of Te Beretitenti [the President] should be considered true and accurate on COVID-19 updates. “

“A sick Russian crew member was brought ashore and needed medical attention,” said Rimon. “He was brought in and doctors were allowed to look at him to see what was going on.

“He had a lung problem, so one person started saying this man has coronavirus and people started spreading it.

“This closed some schools and other parents to get their children out of school.”

The schools remained open and “people started arguing with teachers and said, ‘You have no control over our children – the corona virus is here!” “



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

The panic was heightened in the Betio district of Tarawa, where the main seaport is and where the sailor was taken to hospital.

Betio is one of the most populous communities on Earth, with 2015 censuses reporting 17,330 people living on 1.54 square kilometers of land – a density comparable to Delhi and Kolkata, but without the high-rises.

Plus, it’s impoverished and dirty, with open landfills and the locally-named Red Beach so-called because the sand has been obscured by decades of pollution and sewage. Maintaining picky hygiene practices here would be difficult and social detachment impossible.

Mr. Rimon, who lives in neighboring Bairiki, may not be vulnerable to panic, but he has no doubts about the possibility of a catastrophe if the Corona virus hits Betio.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

“It would be disastrous,” he says. “We couldn’t control it. If even large developing countries like Italy are overwhelmed, we don’t stand a chance.

“Our health care systems are not even as good as those of developing countries around us. Occasionally we have an outbreak of diarrhea or flu and even they put us under pressure, but at least we have medicines for that and we know how to treat them.

“But with coronavirus, from what we’ve seen internationally, it would destroy us.”

What was wrong with the Russian sailor is unknown, but he was treated and returned to his ship.

And all Covid-19 tests are being sent to Australia, which means the results are gone for weeks, or maybe even months now that all international flights to Kiribati have been discontinued.

Assuming the Russian didn’t carry a coronavirus, banning all air traffic would be the most effective way to keep Kiribati safe, even if it has caused problems for a country so dependent on imported goods.

After all, there are only two countries from which you can fly directly.

One is Nauru, a small republic on one island with less than 13,000 inhabitants, little international trade and minimal tourism, which is also free from Covid-19.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

The other is Fiji, which is more concerning, as 18 cases of coronavirus were reported on May 6.

A relatively small number perhaps, but as always the fear of asymptomatic travelers, and Fiji is the most popular tourist destination in the region.

“It was a shock when Fiji first got confirmed cases,” said Rimon.

“Fiji is a hub for the Pacific region. If you want to go out into the world you have to go through Fiji and it is only three hours away.

“Confirmed Covid-19 cases caused a lot of panic here, which is why the government stopped the planes. Now we are completely cut off from the world.”

Cargo ships still arrive in Tarawa, but this mode of transport is of course much longer than air freight, and – apart from medical emergencies – crew members must remain offshore for 14 days before approaching port, further delaying distribution.

“The Kiribati people may face a major problem,” said Ms. Tianaira. “What if we run out of food, and so on?

“The rumor that is spreading here is that there will be no more articles in the country, so those who can afford it buy as much as they can before there is a famine.

“A minister told us not to do that, she said there will be food, but many people don’t believe her.”

They don’t believe a minister, but they do believe that coronavirus-infected fish are lurking in the Pacific, due to a social media post.

Still, after four weeks in the most extreme form of self-isolation in a small country, a sense of calm returns.

The modern scourge of social media complicates things, but in turn they are soothed by that oldest balm: religion.



Inside country with no Covid-19 cases – and why they think it's down to coconuts

“An important factor is that the majority here in Kiribati are Christians,” said Ms. Tianaira. “I pray every day. I pray for those who are against me and for world peace.

“Do you remember the measles outbreak last year? It seemed serious in many other countries, but here only one baby caught it and was treated. I think it’s because most people here believe in God. “

And nothing beats a deadly threat to encourage devotion.

“Suddenly many more people have become religious,” says Rimon. “They want to get closer to God now.

“There is already a deep-seated belief here. People understand that the spread of coronavirus is fast, that the transmission can happen through sneezing, but church meetings are still taking place.

“Easter just went on. They believe in science, but they have a strong belief that God just won’t let it come here.”

And even if He does, Ms. Tianaira’s predictions are not as bleak as Mr. Rimon’s.

“Kiribati people are never afraid of illness,” she says. Some of them live among the Earth, but rarely get a serious illness.

“They had been playing in the mud since childhood, so their immune systems recognize germs.

“Because of our lifestyle, because we believe in God, we don’t believe we can die from something like that. It doesn’t matter.”

Kiribati, one of the few remaining places where coronavirus is not a big deal, thank goodness.

Yes, thank goodness – and coconuts.

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