Revd Fr. Wilfred Kekea returned with his family from training in Fiji to Honiara at the end of last year. At the time all returning Solomon Islanders had to quarantine. Fr Wilfed’s quarantine lasted over 40 days, as unbeknown to him, his family had COVID. Here he writes about their experience –
Two island countries, that make up the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACoM), enjoyed Covid free status until the beginning of 2022. The Solomon Islands succumbed in January and Vanuatu recorded its first case of community transmission in February.
My wife and I, with two of our children tested positive, with the Omicron variant upon arrival in Honiara from Fiji and we went into isolation. The community transmission in Honiara came about whilst we were still in isolation, and we witnessed at firsthand how it affected our health system.
I was asked to share some reflections from the Solomons on how the people are dealing with COVID. But then, as the 23rd recorded COVID case in the Solomons, I decided to share my personal experience. The following are extracts from my journal which I hope, give some insights on how we are coping.
Flight Day (Wednesday 22nd December 2021)
“Why are most international flights operated by the National carrier arriving in Honiara at night?” was a question prior to departure from Fiji. Upon landing I realised that it would have been very, very uncomfortable for the handful of officials whose work is to check us into the country in their PPE, on a typical Honiara afternoon.
The mandatory quarantine for all returning citizens is covered by the government of Solomon Islands. So was the flight and the pre-departure COVID 19 Tests, which I heard was $200 per person (£20). Thank you, SIG and all responsible personnel in Suva and Honiara.
We were housed next to the Fijian soldiers who are here because of the November Honiara riots. At least there is a transition phase, as we can still the hear the Itaukei language, claps around the tanoa (kava bowl) and Fijian songs from our room.
Day 1 (Thursday 23rd December 2021)
Trying to figure out where our quarantine camp is, thanks to google maps, we are right next to the Honiara International Airport. Should have figured that out last night with the very short drive.
Xavinago (Fr Wildred’s son) had a slight fever.
No nasal swab, though we were supposed to have one today. Our personal details are collected again, by friendly Camp Management Team. Why are we giving the same information three times, prior to departure, upon arrival and in quarantine?
Day 3 (Saturday 25th December 2021)
Merry Christmas. Family eucharist this morning and we had our first swab in the afternoon. I think the health workers decided to do a collective swab, together with the passengers from Brisbane who arrived yesterday. Or maybe, the allowances get tripled on a public holiday, who knows, it is anybody’s wild guess as we were not informed of the reasons for this delay.
Family eucharist again this morning as we remember the Holy Family on the first Sunday of Christmas.
Our results come back negative except for our youngest, Xavinago, who is 10 years old. He got a scolding from his elder sibling and mother, had to defuse. Did not hear the Prime Minister’s official announcement, but a member of the family has been officially entered onto the database as Solomon Islands COVID 19 case number 21.
Spent some time with health officials on the phone, contact tracing and repeating the same personal details that we have already given on three separate occasions. Ahh, I got it, the internet speed in the Solomons is slow.
According to the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health’s COVID19 protocols, this means that the whole family need to be swabbed again and that Xavinago will need to go into isolation. Since he is a minor, a parent will have to accompany him, so I had to get ready. In the meantime, how can we maintain social distancing or isolate a 10-year-old?
All family members had another swab today. Transport to the Isolation Centre broke down, so I was told, but we will definitely be going tomorrow. Another day with an active case in poorly ventilated confined space; que sera sera.
Day 6 (Tuesday 28th December 2021)
Got a call on this rainy day to board the St. John’s Ambulance, donated van, with Xavi at around 10:30am but was chased back indoors by Camp Management, after five minutes of waiting for personnel in PPE to open the van.
Another call from doctor announced that Xavi, Hara and I recorded positive for COVID 19, whilst Anika and Tiva are negative. So that is why we were being chased back indoors. Our issue now is that Anika who has downs syndrome, will need her parents’ supervision. She was given the okay to come with us into isolation.
St. John’s ambulance had to make two trips to transport the four of us to the Central Field Hospital, a converted sports hall for isolation. Tiva’s independence comes a bit early, but at 15, I am confident that he can cope, living alone in quarantine.
Informed close relatives and the Archbishop of Melanesia. Though asymptomatic, with the positive test results, the day count starts all over again.
Day 7 (Wednesday 29th December 2021)
Introductions and isolation instructions were made over the phone yesterday. Mask up at all times, even in bed. Washing machine and dryer, only privileged Solomon Islanders have these, are provided. Linens are to be changed and washed after every three days by ourselves. At least we have some activities lined up.
Now we are getting double food packs for every meal. One is from the National Referral Kitchen and the other from our former quarantine station. The nurses are aware of this, hope they will sort it out, though we have a choice, we are wasting food since whatever food we touch or come into contact with, goes into the bin.
Our routine of eating, sleeping, sitting outdoors and personal prayer begins as we remember the Holy Innocents. At least we have a friend, another patient who travelled back from Dubai, from All Saints Parish with us in isolation.
Today I asked a relative who lives nearby to bring an aluminum dish for steaming. She was asked by the authorities to bring a plastic dish instead. Reason – aluminum cannot be burnt in the incinerator – thus, no spoons, knives or anything metal are allowed into quarantine or isolation centres. In ignorance, I have already brought in various metallic and ceramic items including mugs, a small knife and a laptop. Does that mean that everything that is being brought into these centres will end up in the incinerator? I do not think so.
Each of us was given a sprayer of diluted bleach with the advice that we are to spray everywhere we go. The squishing sound of the sprayer reminds me of a leper’s bell in ancient times announcing ‘unclean, unclean’ except that today I will need a doctor’s okay to go back into the community instead of a priest’s.
Day 14 (Wednesday 5th January 2022)
Xavi had another swab today. Swab 3. A lot of fruit was sent in by different relatives, somehow, they were all inspired to send in fruits today. Now we have to find a way to get the refrigerator going as there is no power point near its location. Fortunately, the hardworking nurses provided an extension lead.
Xavi’s result came back still positive, next test in seven days. Not good news when we celebrate the Epiphany today. We will need three negatives for discharge.
Anika, Hara and I also had our swab this afternoon. Started noticing that something is not quite right. Our swab samples, in a small cooler, were left on the grass beside the locked gate for about three hours. There was the afternoon sun and an evening downpour, just had to get a video of this on my phone. Are the samples still okay?
Heard on the news that some of the frontliners are complaining of receiving half pay. Hmmm
Day 16 (Friday 7th January 2022)
The Solomon Islands Prime Minister made another special announcement today. The sister of the 10-year-old boy who returned from Fiji has returned a positive COVID 19 test result. Anika has entered the database as Solomon Islands COVID 19 case number 25. Why were we not informed prior to the nationwide address?
Search me my Lord, you know my heart today; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:23-24)
Per COVID 19 protocols, we will now be having separate swab days. Why do we need to stick to these protocols when it will be viable to have us swabbed together since we can only be released back into the community together? I guess National Health Emergency Operating Centre still has the capacity.
Prime Minister Sogavare also announced that three persons who returned from Fiji, Xavi, Hara and I were identified with the Omicron variant, whilst the person who returned from Dubai had the Delta variant. Aha, maybe the health workers knowing that we had the Omicron, purposely left the cooler in the sun as a safety precaution.
Spent some time today on the phone responding to family and friends, assuring them that we are all asymptomatic and enjoying the food.
We – the family, also decided to use the female convenience room, as there are no other female patients, to allow the single patient with delta variant to use the male’s room.
Day 19 (Monday 10th January 2022)
Are we being given the silent treatment? There were no phone calls from the nursing station since Friday.
Then there is a call from the nursing station to tell us that their two week shift has ended, we exchanged pleasantries and well wishes. They will be able to recognize us if we meet again on the streets as they were monitoring us on the CCTV. We, on the other hand, will not be able to recognize them as the only time we saw them was from a three to five meter distance, dressed in PPE.
The new team sounded enthusiastic as they made their introductions over the phone and we had grilled drumsticks and lambchops with cassava and kumara for lunch. This is a treat by Solomon standards, though we are still hoping to get a taste of the commonest Solomon dish of boiled fish in coconut cream.
We are now two and a half weeks in a quarantine/isolation institute. Most of our freedoms are restricted. I have noticed that some of the COVID 19 protocols enforced by the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health need to be revised.
I also noticed the fear of COVID 19 by our frontline workers. I wish I can educate them. I have helped on three occasions, families and an individual with COVID 19 in Fiji. As they cannot go out, being COVID positive and in home isolation, to shop for groceries, I went to get their money and did their shopping. Another was having trouble breathing so that I have to bring medication and fruits. No PPE was worn but basic Covid safe practices were maintained by all involved. That was during the peak of the second wave in Suva, Fiji.
As was stressed by the Prime Minister, Solomon Islands will not be able to deal with a mass community transmission. I have witnessed first-hand our health system’s incapability and will continue to advocate for vaccination.
Day 20 (Tuesday 11th January 2022)
As instructed, there are some areas which are restricted to us marked out by lines on the floor. Our meals are usually brought in by the nursing staff and placed on a table bordering our territory and the nurses’ territory.
A new member of staff brought in lunch and mistakenly placed it on a table in the restricted area at around 1:45pm. After a couple of polite but angry phone calls, we had lunch at 3:30pm. Another nursing staff profusely apologized for the mistake and unfortunately, received a piece of my mind. Lord, we pray for patience and understanding.
Xavinago had another swab later in the afternoon.
Day 22 (Thursday 13th January 2022)
Swab day for Hara and I, we also had boiled fish in coconut milk for lunch. Thank you, Lord, for the many blessings.
Day 25 (Sunday 16th January 2022)
In the ACoM cycle of prayer this week, we are asked to pray for our schools and colleges as they anticipate the beginning of a new academic year. Reminds me that I have not yet arranged any school for the children, but I put my trust in God for directions.
A close friend in Brisbane who went into home isolation a week after us just messaged me to say that he is now visiting relatives in Adelaide. Lord, inspire persons responsible to keep abreast with current findings. Solomon Islands COVID 19 protocols definitely need revision.
Swab day for Anika. Something is definitely not right, or something is happening in Honiara that we are not aware of. We have not been contacted by health authorities to let us know of our swab results. We are only aware of our status during a talkback show today on the national broadcaster stating that we are asymptomatic but will still need three negative test results before discharge.
Day 27 (Tuesday 18th January 2022)
We are still waiting for our results, which is not normal as we usually have them the day after swabs. There are rumours, from calls to wantoks and on social media, that there is now suspected community transmission in Honiara. The Prime Minister in his address this afternoon stated that there are two new cases, a foreign national and a local. A call from the nurse station at 11pm advised us to remain in our cubicles as a new patient was being brought in. Patient finally arrived at midnight and hearing him talking to the nurses in pidgin, can tell that this is the first identified case of local transmission.
The foreign national was brought into the Central Field Hospital.
Day 29 (Thursday 20th January 2022)
Transferred to another quarantine facility, Honiara Hotel. At least we are not being monitored 24/7 on CCTV. Prime Minister announced that there is now community transmission with 48 persons tested positive.
Staff at the Central Field Hospital bid us farewell and told us that they are expecting 11 new patients this evening. As they were not able to listen to the PM’s announcement, they were quite shocked when I informed them. Looking at social media feeds, it is as if someone just punched the panic button for Honiara City.
Today is also supposed to be our swab day but postponed for Sunday. Lab at the National Referral is now feeling the pressure.
Day 34 (Tuesday 25th January 2022)
The past days after the announcement of community transmission have seen a huge turnout for vaccination at vaccination sites. Some who openly spoke against vaccination were seen in the queue for vaccination. A comparison to Paul’s conversion as we remember the Biblical event today.
Honiara goes into a four-day lockdown as of 6pm today and we are still waiting for our final swab. Medical authorities advise the public in Honiara to go into home isolation if they have flu like symptoms and to remain in isolation for a further three days once recovered, approximately two weeks. A typical home in Honiara may house three generations with shared kitchen, shower room and toilet. I cannot imagine how it will be possible to isolate someone in such an environment. The length of time as advised makes me question why we have been in isolation for almost a month. Are we still a threat to the Solomons? I guess the country cannot afford to have another variant spreading in the community.
Friends working as frontliners phoned asking for prayers as they are tested positive and go into isolation. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Others knowing that we tested positive and are in isolation, gave numbers of loved ones, most of whom were not vaccinated, who are tested positive so that I can call them to give assurance and hope.
Day 35 (Wednesday 26th January 2022)
Finally, the swab team arrived for testing.
Day 37 (Friday 28th January 2022)
Received an SMS from the Head Clinician at the National Referral Hospital informing us that we are recommended to NHEOC for discharge tomorrow. We will be two days short of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.
Day 40 (Monday 31st January 2022)
We are still at the Honiara Hotel and our health system is now feeling the toll. Staff shortages as most frontliners are tested positive. There is also a back log of swab samples at the lab and many sick patients at National referral Hospital tested positive.
Started ringing around enquiring about our discharge and learned that all frontliners who are working had to take extra shifts. I pray for those who are sick, the nurses, doctors, hospital staff and care givers in the homes. Is this just the beginning or are we now at the peak?
Finally, the NHEOC Incident Controller called in the afternoon to say that someone will be coming to discharge us tomorrow. Being well versed with the Solomon cultural etiquette, ‘tomorrow’ can be any time from the next day to any day in the future.
Someone also called today for confession, my first ever to be conducted through mobile phone. Welcome to the world of technology, I think this is the safest mode in this pandemic.
Day 42 (Wednesday 2nd February 2022)
At last, as we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, we are discharged. Praise God.
After thoughts Wednesday 16th March 2022
Looking back over the last month and a half, one can say that the faith of the people helped them during the peak of the pandemic in Honiara. People were praying for healing and protection, and where there is death in a household, faith in God brings peace and comfort.
It is also noted that with the limited resources, such as masks and hand sanitizers, people depend primarily on God’s protection whilst traditional knowledge is sought to treat ailments that are associated with the virus. To one extent, as in other parts of the world, faith for some is revealed in the return to normal practices. Whilst for others, it is to adhere to COVID safe practices with available limited resources such as frequent hand washing with soap and water, social distancing and limiting large social gatherings. Yet still, the clergy in Honiara are finding it difficult to limit church gatherings and are trying out different options that will cater for different parishes.
As I write, COVID19 has just reached the shores of Vanuatu, Omicron variant, and other islands of the Solomons (Delta Variant).
Fr. Wilfred Kekea
Anglican Church of Melanesia