It’s A US Territory Where The Coronavirus Never Arrived — But Some Residents Can’t Get Home
The remote US territory of American Samoa has not recorded a single case of COVID-19 after shutting itself off to the world in March. Even some locals can't get home.
Crystal Veavea did not know when she boarded a flight from American Samoa on March 9 that she would be saying goodbye to her family for months on end. The 38-year-old usually flies back and forth from her home in Pago Pago to Lake Elsinore, California, every other month to be treated for polycythemia vera, a form of blood cancer. But this time, she was apprehensive about traveling when the coronavirus was starting to spread around the world.
“I contacted my doctor and said, ‘Hey, can I not come? Can I skip one of my medical treatments?’ And he said no,” Veavea told BuzzFeed News.
So Veavea flew to California for her cancer treatment as she was told to and was scheduled to return April 9 — but in late March, the government in American Samoa closed the borders and suspended flights to and from the island. She was not able to return home.
“So now I’m stuck here,” Veavea said. “I have no family here — it’s just me.”
Even as more than 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, American Samoa has had zero recorded cases of the virus. The remote US territory — a small island located in the Pacific Ocean, roughly equidistant between Hawaii and New Zealand — is the sole part of the country that has managed to remain completely COVID-free, largely due to the governor’s move in late March to completely close off the island to the outside world to prevent the virus from coming in.
The decision has kept its 55,000 residents free of the coronavirus — but it has also left hundreds of them stranded in the States, far from their homes, for months on end and with no indication of when they will be allowed to return. Many of these people went to the US for medical treatment or to care for ailing family members, not realizing that choice would mean getting stuck miles away from their families and friends during one of the most tumultuous times in living memory. Now, their finances are dwindling, their mental health is in crisis, and all they can do is long for the day they can go home.
“It’s devastating, because I left my daughter behind,” said Veavea, who hasn’t seen her family in seven months. “Having to go through treatment for cancer, it’s a battle on its own.”
Veavea is now staying in the home she owns in California, and while she’s grateful to have somewhere to live, the financial hardship of not being able to work to support herself and her family weighs heavily. Even worse, she is incredibly lonely and her mental health has plummeted.
But FaceTiming her 15-year-old daughter, Miracle, is too hard to bear. She prefers that Miracle, who is now being cared for by Veavea’s sister, just message her on Facebook so she doesn’t have to go through as much pain.
“[My daughter] always tells me, Mom, I really miss you. Mom, I wish you were here. Mom, I’m getting inducted into [National Honor Society]. You’re missing all my special moments,” Veavea said. “And I promised her I was going to be there, when I was diagnosed two years ago. I promised her that I will fight. I will make sure I’ll be there for every milestone she had.”
Veavea is one of more than 500 stranded American Samoans who are facing a brutal mix of issues, according to Eileen Tyrell, a spokesperson for Tagata Tutū Faatasi Alliance of American Samoa, a grassroots organization of these individuals and their families pushing for their return.
Many American Samoans are suffering financial hardship and some are even homeless because they can’t make ends meet, but they have received no aid from any government. Nearly all are painfully lonely and missing their families.
“Some mothers lament that their younger babies don’t recognize them, even via Zoom or Facebook chat,” Tyrell told BuzzFeed News. “Some have said their babies also cry for them at night and cannot go to sleep.”
Tyrell lives in Tacoma, Washington, but her own mother, Maraia Malae Leiato, who lives in Aua, American Samoa, is one of the many stuck far from home ever since she came to stay with her daughter for a medical procedure.
In September, American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga extended the suspension of flights to and from the island through at least the end of October, according to Samoa News. He has previously said his priority is to “protect the lives of all residents of American Samoa despite the pressure from our stranded residents clamoring to return home.”
“We are certainly not oblivious to our residents’ earnest pleas and yearning to return home, but from our perspective, they are in a better place to seek medical assistance and sophisticated healthcare if the inevitable were to happen to any one of them,” Moliga said.
Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, a chair for the territory’s coronavirus task force, echoed the sentiment this week, telling the Associated Press people have not been repatriated because “the interests of the 60,000 residents on-island and protecting their lives outweighs the interest of the 600 or more residents stranded in the United States.”
“As the governor has continuously pointed out, more healthcare facilities are available in Hawaii and mainland states that they can access if they contract the virus,” Pereira said.
But access to healthcare facilities in case they contract COVID-19 comes at a price.
Some residents of American Samoa have had to deal with immigration issues. Tyrell’s mother, a citizen of Fiji who has lived in American Samoa for decades, had to pay $450 to extend her visa to remain in the US when she realized she had no other way to avoid overstaying it.
But the mental health effects are perhaps the most pressing, Tyrell said, both for those stuck in the US and their loved ones back home. Feelings of isolation and hopelessness are commonplace, and she worries about this as the holiday season draws near.
“Can you imagine the holidays coming up and we are stuck in limbo, and the devastation that will cause?” she said. “It’s unfathomable, it’s tragic, and it’s cruel.”
One of the most frustrating things is the ambiguity about whether there is any plan to bring people home, Tyrell said. She and other group members have tried writing a petition and contacting their government officials, offering ideas for how they could safely return, but so far nothing has made a difference as far as they can tell.
Tyrell’s group is not calling for American Samoa’s borders to be fully reopened — they, too, want to keep the island safe from COVID-19. But they want a plan to bring them home. They have brainstormed solutions, which they detailed in Samoa News, such as staggering inbound flights and mandatory quarantines.
Such plans are not out of the ordinary when it comes to governments repatriating its citizens during the pandemic. In Australia, citizens arriving from abroad are required to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days on their own dime. The quarantine is enforced by the military, and individuals cannot leave their rooms. Up until Oct. 15, people going to Hawaii were also required to self-quarantine for 14 days, but now a negative COVID-19 test will allow travelers to skip quarantining entirely.
“We’re not fighting against the government,” Tyrell said. “The governor keeps saying, ‘We’re protecting the 50,000 that are on the island.’ He keeps weighing the lives of the 50,000 versus the 500 or 600. But it’s not us versus them.”
“We feel a sense of abandonment,” she added, “like we don’t count.”
Veavea, the mother being treated for cancer, shares the feeling of being abandoned by her government. She is doing everything she can to take care of herself until she can go home to her daughter, including seeing a therapist. She now has two emotional support dogs to keep her company — two huskies, named Tokyo and Bogota. “They were puppies when I got them, and now they’re 6 months old,” she said.
Veavea doesn’t know when, but one day, she will eventually get on a plane and return to American Samoa. She will eat her favorite local foods, taro and salmon oka, a dish of raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk. She tries to make the meal in California, but the fish just doesn’t taste as fresh. “I know the difference,” she said.
But really, she just wants to hug the people she’s missed the most.
“Seeing my daughter and my family is all I want,” she said. “Just for them to hug me, and for me to do the same. That is all I need.”