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Death in paradise: when COVID came to Vanuatu

Introduction by Croakey: The island nation of Vanuatu has so far escaped a serious outbreak of COVID despite low vaccination rates and a tiny healthcare workforce.

Many Pacific countries like Vanuatu are lagging behind in vaccination coverage due to a lack of access to vaccines, a shortage of healthcare workers and geographical restrictions. New modelling by the Lowy Institute forecasts that countries like Papua New Guinea may only have one-third of its adult population vaccinated by 2026. In Vanuatu, only 29 percent of the adult population is expected to be vaccinated by the end of this year.

In this gripping longread below, award-winning Australian journalist Ginny Stein (pictured) investigated the fifth case of COVID-19 in Vanuatu and unravelled the identity of the mystery man, along the way charting the limitations of the country’s healthcare system, island politics and cultural learnings around death and grief.

Her essay, Dead Men Don’t Breatheoriginally published in Medium.com – is a reminder that life could change at any time if COVID takes hold in Vanuatu as it has in nearby countries like Papua New Guinea, where the mystery man travelled from.

Ginny Stein is a renowned foreign correspondent with a Masters of Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Development and is writer in residence at the Emalus Campus of the University of the South Pacific. She moved to Vanuatu – the nation considered by the UN to be the most prone to natural hazards in the world – to transition into her new career in disaster response.

Not long after she arrived in Vanuatu, so did the COVID pandemic.


Ginny Stein writes:

My skin is crawling.

After months of damp and sweaty living, my body is rebelling. Mould, fungus and the human body; it is not just the dead who rot in the tropics  –  it is also the living.

Overhead, the fan is stirring the warm air, messing with my hair. Trickling beads of sweat are running down my back. The cool season has yet to return to Vanuatu, my tropical island home in the South Pacific.

And now, at last, I can smell the rain coming.

From my small bungalow overlooking Numbawan Lagoon to the village of Erakor, there is a ripple of movement across the water. It won’t be too long before the afternoon downpour arrives from across the way.

Right now, I need to stop itching. I need to focus and get writing, because I need to tell you of a most extraordinary time here in Vanuatu.

As I write this, Vanuatu had been a rarity in the world in the grip of a global pandemic. It is COVID-free. The death toll from the COVID pandemic has been exactly zero (although I admit writing that scares me a little… It’s as though I’m tempting fate putting those words to paper).

Germs and diseases from the outside world are known in Vanuatu as disis blo waet man (white man’s diseases). The country has experienced their devastating impact. And not so long ago.

The island of Erromango is a case in point.

A popular destination for Australian and English sandalwood traders and missionaries, in less than one hundred years the population shrunk from about 4,500 people to less than 500 in 1930. Such was the apocalyptic impact of imported diseases and the indigenous people’s inability to defend themselves from them or treat them.

In Vanuatu today, as the pandemic rages around the globe, we are part of the 0.1 percent of the globe to have so far lived through this pandemic without the virus lurking amongst us.

We fear how this nation, with just a handful of ventilators and less than 100 trained nurses on its 83 islands, would cope if the virus comes ashore.

Luck, geographic proximity and reacting quickly to close its borders has all played a role in keeping the virus from setting afoot in Vanuatu.

In the first year of the COVID pandemic, Vanuatu recorded a small miracle: just five cases of the acute respiratory virus. Each case was detected during screening in mandatory quarantine. There have been so few cases that the entire country is aware of each one of them.

Case number one: a young ni-Vanuatu man returning home from the United States.

Cases two and three: bank employees brought in from Papua New Guinea after being granted skilled temporary working visas. After two negative tests in quarantine, the first man was allowed to return to his community. It was a challenging reintroduction for him. The community was nervous about what to believe.

The two bank employees spent nine weeks in quarantine and in isolation before they were allowed to leave the country. They never set a free foot in Vanuatu. The National Disaster Management Office deciding after they were medically cleared that they should remain confined, in hotel isolation, until the 16-member team was ready to return to Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t just the bank’s employees who were nervous.

And now, cases four and five. Two ni-Vanautu citizens returning home via New Caledonia. They were two out of 18 onboard that flight. And as tests later confirmed, they were infected with the virulent Delta strain of the virus.

Vanuatu’s chief line of defence throughout this pandemic has been to become unapologetically a hermit nation. But borders are porous, and this is a nation of islands.

And this has been brought home by another case, that has for technical reasons not been listed, for his body washed ashore in circumstances unknown.

But his death is equally tragic, and not least because he is dead.

As I write we know very little about him, except the ship he came from, his nationality and where he was found. His body has been identified but we don’t know his name. In the past week, there has been a lot of chatter about how he washed up.

Much is based on fear that his death and the circumstance around his discovery may lead to Vanuatu’s first case of community transmission, or worse still, a super-spreader event. That it could determine whether we would live or die as victims of the global pandemic.

At any other time in history that might sound a tad melodramatic, but the arrival of “the dead Filipino” into an unvaccinated COVID-free nation would test the country’s decision-makers and countless others on the front line.

It would also demonstrate the limits of Vanuatu’s resources and show how fear takes hold in the absence of clear and accurate information.

When I heard about the dead man via a text message from a friend, I was woken from my COVID-complacency. I decided it was time to stop being a reluctant journalist and commit myself once more to chasing up answers.

A lifetime as a foreign correspondent responding to disasters all over the world, from earthquakes to tsunamis, to climate-induced famine and war, I knew the drill.

First things first: I needed to get to the centre of the story.

I needed to do what journalists do  –  get myself amongst it and start asking questions to those in power. It was time to call the Minister.

 

Vanuatu, a nation of islands, has a limited health workforce to deal with COVID cases.

Did anyone leave the ship?

Before entering politics Vanuatu’s Health Minister Silas Bule was the highly respected Headmaster of Pentecost Island’s Ranawadi High School.

The Minister is a punctual man. And I am a punctual journalist.

Sigh. Yes, after three years in Vanuatu I know I should have known better, but old habits die hard. We were the first to arrive at the Prime Minister’s office and we were destined to wait.

We had come to hear an announcement by Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman Weibur, although we weren’t sure just what he was going to announce.

In April 2020, Bob Loughman won the nation’s top prize to govern this country right as the COVID pandemic was spreading around the globe.

His first weeks in office skipped the traditional honeymoon period, beginning instead with a trifecta of disasters: a global pandemic, a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone (TC Harold), and immense ashfall from a volcano south of Tanna Island that shows no sign of stopping erupting.

While we wait in a windowless room, I am relieved that the air-conditioner is working. The Health Minister, perhaps not so much, for Minister Bule is coughing and sneezing.

In the past week, since the man’s body washed ashore, the mi harem se, or ‘I heard that’ rumour mill has been in overdrive.

This is a nervous time.

While we wait for Vanuatu’s Prime Minister to arrive, a young woman journalist from the Daily Post arrived. She looked like she’d rather be anywhere else on a Sunday than here in this room, where women, counting myself, and one other were completely outnumbered by a dozen or so men.

Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world without a single woman in parliament.

Next, we are joined by a couple of ministerial staff, including the Prime Minister’s Press Officer Fred Varobaravu.

The word was already out on social media that PM Loughman would soon be making an announcement. Friends were messaging wanting to know more and when the Prime Minister’s statement would begin.

Not yet, was the short answer  –  the state broadcaster VBTC was trying to rustle up a crew. It was Sunday after all.

In Vanuatu, there are no Sunday news bulletins, nor is there a Monday newspaper. Sunday is traditionally a day off for this Christian country.

The Health Minister keeps coughing, and after another short burst, I can’t help myself. As he draws breath, I say out loud, “Should we be worried about the Health Minister?”

Everyone in the room giggles nervously, the Minister laughs bringing on another coughing fit. This time he pointedly coughs into his elbow.

Varobaravu rushes from the room and returns moments later with a bottle of hand sanitiser. As he circles the room, everyone is offered some, the Minister receiving a double squirt. No one is wearing a mask. But I am beginning to wonder whether I should.

“It’s the dust from Tanna. I’ve not been here in Efate,” he protests with a shy smile.

For the past week, as rumours swirled the capital, Vanuatu’s 13-member cabinet had been holding court on the populous southern island of Tanna.

These week-long mobile Council of Ministers meetings shared across Vanuatu’s main islands were aimed at supporting local economies hard hit by border closures and the shutdown of the nation’s tourism sector.

While they discussed weighty issues away from the capital, rumours about the dead body were flying across social media, and through Port Vila’s more than one hundred kava bars.

The social sedative that comes from the crushed root of the kava plant certainly hadn’t managed to calm things down.

Did anyone leave the ship? Did anyone see them? Was he pushed? Did he jump? Who went onboard the ship? Did sex workers pay a call?

As the second-hand swirl of information and misinformation spread people began to be seen wearing masks in public.

Earlier this Sunday morning a friend texted to say her boss, lawyer John Malcolm, had been ordered to have a COVID test. Malcolm had been in the presence of the dead body earlier in the week.

Text message: Boss got tested. Ordered to self-quarantine. Urgent health meeting at 2pm.”

I needed to find out what was happening. I called the Health Minister on his mobile phone for a chat. In Vanuatu there are few gatekeepers. It’s like journalism from another era.

“I’m not sure what is going to be announced,” the Minister said. “I am waiting to hear. Why don’t you come to the press conference at the Prime Minister’s office?”

One of the joys of journalism is that you get to ask questions. You are not consigned to the sidelines, kept in the dark or frustrated by rumours and second-hand information. Finding the whole truth is rarely possible, but at least I’d be better informed.

The first time I met Silas Bule was just before his party won government and he was appointed Health Minister.

We met in the lobby of The Grand Hotel in downtown Port Vila. The Grand is popular for its air-conditioning as much as its location. We talked about music, where I should stay when I travelled to his home island of Pentecost.

I was planning a trip to Pentecost to film a story about kava and wanted to connect with local musicians on his home island to record some local music to use in the video.

Months later Silas Bule MP was no longer just an MP  –  he was now a minister.

I can no longer call him Silas. It’s now Minister Bule.

Together we wait for the Prime Minister to confirm this small island’s worst kept suspicion, that the man who had washed ashore a week ago was COVID positive.

Two hours and a lot of small talk later, the VBTC crew finally appear. The Prime Minister first peeps in, then enters the room, just a little bit nervously.

He’s ready to address the nation.

One week before

The gas tanker Inge Kosan approached Port Vila through a deep sea channel, rounding Ifira Island, the small island in Port Vila harbour and home to the traditional or kastom land owners of Port Vila.

It was there that the ship was met by a tugboat. The harbour master onboard the tugboat had already donned his personal protection equipment and had climbed the ladder to board Inge Kosan to steer it through the narrow reef opening into the inner harbour.

The British-flagged vessel was on a regular stopover to deliver LPG. Portable gas fuels much of Port Vila. It’s what the island’s middle class use for hot water and to cook.

Once Inge Kosan’s papers were cleared it would begin delivering its fuel from ship to shore.

In this time of COVID ‘no contact’ delivery protocols were in place. A pipeline runs from the wharf to a gas tank facility nearby. No one was required to board the ship for its cargo of fuel to be released.

Earlier in the morning doctor Julie Bador had gone onboard Inge Kosan. As part of the arrival procedures for any foreign vessel entering Vanuatu’s waters, the ship’s captain must provide self-declared health checks from each and every crew member. No fevers? No sicknesses? An ‘all clear’ was given.

But now, a few hours later, the captain was on the line to its shipping agent asking for a doctor for one of his crew. His second engineer was behaving strangely. Both the captain and his chief engineer were worried.

The call went out again to Dr Bador, but this time it was her father, Dr Jean-Luc Bador, who was on-call.

The Bador’s medical practice is on the high end of Port Vila’s main strip, overlooking the harbour. Dr Julie Bador trained in Australia, her father in France.

Vanuatu’s colonial past (where it was once governed simultaneously by Britain and France) and its aid-dependent present remains visible in countless small ways, not least in the makeup and schooling of its population.

In front of the Bador’s medical rooms runs the pot-holed two-laned Kumul Highway. It is Port Vila’s main street and runs parallel to the harbour.

Dr Bador was told that the ship’s second engineer was in bad shape and behaving “abnormally”.

The crewman, a Filipino national who had boarded the ship in Papua New Guinea after flying in from the Philippines three weeks before, was now desperate to get off the ship. He was convinced the gas tanker was going to explode.

When the second engineer departed the Philippines, he’d been tested for COVID and given the all-clear.

He arrived into PNG just days after the state funeral for Sir Michael Somare, the country’s Grand Chief and revered first Prime Minister. Calls to cancel the public funeral as the nation was plunging into a full-blown COVID crisis had been ignored.

Large crowds had attended the funeral and thousands had lined the streets to watch the funeral motorcade pass by.

The movements of the Filipino crewman after he arrived in Port Moresby are not known as the shipping company has refused to answer all questions, but with news of COVID now spreading throughout all provinces of PNG, crew onboard were nervous about the new arrivals.

One of the crew, who I spoke to over the phone and who had been on the ship for many months, spoke of his fear about the virus and its spread around the world.

On land people worry about ships bringing COVID to shore but onboard, where crew work and live in confined spaces and in close proximity to each other, that fear is not fleeting but constant.

“It gets better, it gets worse; it gets better, it gets worse.”

The crew knew the virus was out there. They were worried about it being brought onboard. What they didn’t know was that it was already amongst them.

Call a doctor

It wasn’t for COVID that the ship’s captain made his call for medical help the day after the Inge Kosan gas tanker arrived in Port Vila.

It was the behaviour of the second engineer. His actions and beliefs were upsetting, not just to him but to everyone else onboard.

As soon as Dr Jean-Luc Bador received the call, he got ready. As an approved medical contractor, Dr Bador had been onboard a number of vessels in recent months.

He was well-versed in the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) of coverall, gloves, and masks for dealing with COVID.

With the ship alongside the main wharf, and with clearance to board granted by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), access was easy. Dr Bador walked straight up the gangplank.

He was met by crew members all wearing gloves and masks. He followed one of them to the cabin of the sick man.

The cabin was small. The man was crouched on the floor at the end of his cabin, Dr Bador remained in the doorway. He talked to the man for about 20 minutes.

“I only came in close to him when I stepped forward to give him an injection,” he said. Just what he injected him with he would not say, but its intent was to help calm him.

After completing his consultation, Dr Bador’s conclusion was that the man did not appear physically ill.

He’d been screened, and his temperature taken. He showed no signs of fever, or coughing or being physically unwell,” he later told me over the phone.

But his mental condition was another matter. He was not in good shape. He wanted to get off the ship.

In hindsight, Dr Bador’s description of the man being in an ‘altered mental state’ seems to fit a certain type of COVID psychosis that has been increasingly identified throughout this pandemic.

“When someone is not in a good condition, it is hard on them and on others. The ship is very small,” Dr Bador told me the week after the man’s body was found.

“Filipinos are very religious, most likely very Catholic and prone to superstition,” he added, to give context to his thoughts about the man’s state.

After consulting with his patient, Dr Bador met with the captain and his chief engineer.

He suggested to the captain that he and the ship’s crew should keep a close watch on the man.

The ship would be leaving Port Vila the following day for its next fuel drop in the Solomon Islands.

Before Dr Bador disembarked the ship he took off his coveralls, leaving them behind to be disposed of onboard. He descended the gangplank, walked over to his car and removed his gloves and masks. He was worried about the crewman, but he felt he had done all he could.

He ruled out COVID when he spoke with the patient.

Dr Bador would return home. If he was lucky his weekend would now begin. He hoped he would not be called out again.

Sunday: The next day.

John Malcolm is someone who might quite relish being called a ‘colourful identity’.

In reality this transplanted New Zealander is a lawyer and the legal go-to by Vanuatu’s political and business leaders. Vanuatu is a small country, but it is a highly litigious nation.

Malcolm is also a member of Vanuatu’s biker gang “The Pirates”.

Dressed in his ‘colours’, he’d soon be leaving home to meet up with his gang for a regular Sunday ride around the island of Efate.

The Pirates, a motley crew of middle-aged men and some women from all walks of life and nationalities, had a plan. Ride halfway around the island to a resort which had become a regular stop. They would pull up for a drink, and a side-order of scones and jam, before returning to Malcolm’s house for lunch.

Malcolm lives in Dream Cove on a sprawling beachfront estate inside a posh and pristine gated community, on the south-western side of Port Vila harbour.

It’s where wealthy expats and long-term residents enjoy waterfront properties free from outside intrusions, unless of course they are of their own design.

Locally, Dream Cove has another name: Drama Cove, based on failed friendships, drunken gatherings and marriage bust-ups inside what is a very small community.

As Malcolm got ready for the ride he put a pot on the stove to boil some eggs. Today’s lunch menu for when the Pirates returned from their island loop was chicken burgers, boiled eggs and beer.

Efate, Vanuatu’s third largest island is not a big island. The ring road around the island is just 130 kilometres.

“We made a hydration stop halfway around the island at a place called Le Life,” Malcolm said. “It was there that Pete got a call from Ports and Harbour.”

Pete Phillipps is a commercial diver and owner of a long-standing scuba and watersports business. He was one of the five or six riders doing the loop that day.

The call was short and typically limited in facts. Phillipps, who is on speed dial to Vanuatu’s Ports and Marine for all its underwater needs, was told that when the gas tanker left that morning, they’d discovered they were missing one of their crew.

“They suspected he might have fallen off the gang plank or something, over at the main wharf, and they asked whether I would be prepared to go dive for the body.”

Phillipps finished his beer and set off back to Port Vila. As one Pirate took off, the rest followed. It was then that Malcolm remembered the eggs.

“I’d left them on the stove, so I set off after him, pushing everyone along, heading straight home,” Malcolm said.

Any thoughts of missing bodies vanished as he imagined the worst about what might be left of his kitchen or whether his house would still be standing when he got home.

Vanuatu has two fire trucks. Rapid response is not their motto. And it was a Sunday.

Malcolm arrived at his house, relieved to find it was still standing, albeit full of smoke. The phone call that had interrupted their ride and caused Phillipps to depart in a hurry was long forgotten.

Malcolm rushed around, opening windows, and putting on a new batch of eggs to boil.

A short time later, the first of the Pirates showed up for lunch. Stephane Riviere runs a bike and mechanic shop near the airport. He walked in with his wife and child.

He went out onto the deck to take in the view, staring out at the deep sea channel entrance to the harbour, before his gaze dropped down to the sandy beach in front of Malcolm’s property.

“It was then I saw something,” Stephane later told me.

“From a distance I wasn’t sure what it was, whether it was a person, or an animal. But then, in the wash of the shallows, one leg moved, and I knew it was a person.”

He called out to Malcolm to tell him there was a body on his beach.

“I thought he was joking, I told him to fuck off,” Malcolm said. “But he said, no, I am being serious, there is a body in the water, down on your beach.”

“He was fully clothed. No life jacket, no jewellery, no watch, no nothing. He was just lying on his back in the water. Dead as dead as dead. But with no cuts or injuries that we could see,” Malcolm said.

Together the two men, holding one wrist each, pulled the man out of the water and onto the beach.

“We weren’t thinking about anything other than, here is a dead guy in the water,” Malcolm said.

Stephane went down to the water’s edge to wash his hands and Malcolm went up to his house to grab a sheet to cover the body and to wash his hands. Neither had given the global pandemic a second thought. Their only reaction had been to offer help.

“I washed my hands really carefully, not for any other reason, not because of COVID. I wasn’t thinking about that,” Malcolm told me, still clearly rattled. “Holding a dead body is horrible. I had never done that before.”

Back on the beach Stephane called the police. He gave the officer on duty at the main police station directions to Malcolm’s house. Malcolm also made a call to Phillipps, who was out in his boat in the middle of harbour waiting to be called into action.

Phillipps and his crew were yet to dive. From onboard their boat, they’d watched search vessels making sweeps of the harbour, before they started moving further out to the channel markers at the entrance to the harbour.

On the phone, Malcolm was direct.

“I think we have your body,” Malcolm told Phillipps. “It looks like he’s been in the water for a while.”

Philipps’ first response was disbelief, but Malcolm described the body in front of him.

“Medium build, Filipino, dressed in shorts and T-shirt.”

A short time later a large group of Maritime and Ports officers who had been at the wharf, followed by police, arrived at Malcolm’s property. They all went down to view the body, covered in the sheet Malcolm had placed over it.

From the deck the Pirates watched as a paramedic from ProMedical picked up the man’s body, placing it into a black plastic body bag, before zipping it closed.

As soon as the body was taken away, police and the Ports officials also departed. The Pirates settled in for a long afternoon lunch.

A short time later, they were disturbed again, this time by the arrival of a small dinghy that pulled up on the beach where the body had washed up. A man jumped out and grabbed the sheet that had been used to cover the body. It had been left behind.

Perhaps someone, somewhere, had COVID on their mind.

One mourner to hold vigil

The ProMedical paramedic who picked up the body transported it across town in the back of a white ute to the morgue at Port Vila Central Hospital.

Vanuatu’s morgue is not the out-of-sight repository of dead bodies that is seen in western cultures. It is both a morgue where bodies are held for autopsies, and also a mortuary where bodies are prepared for burial.

Here, like much of the South Pacific, it is the first stop in the death process, where people immediately gather upon hearing of a death of a family member or friend.

In my three years in Vanuatu I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing these gatherings far too often. Vanuatu may be considered an island paradise by many, but the reality is that this is a developing country, with poor infrastructure and limited health care.

People die early from illnesses, preventable diseases, misadventures, and often the exact cause of death remains a mystery.

Grief is hard and fast. It is vocal and visible. Women wail, but so too do men.

People line up to shake hands, to hug and kiss one another, to console extended family members, friends and work colleagues, and to share food.

Visitors stream in and out. There is a pecking order of sorts as to when you should arrive. Those closest to the family of the bereaved are expected to come first, then in order of respect.

Depending on the heat and the condition of a body, it may hold centre stage throughout the viewing process. Bodies generally don’t stay long. They come in, they go out, mostly it’s a same day process.

For the Filipino crewman, there would be one mourner only. The wife of Doctor Jean Luc Bador, a woman with strong religious convictions would visit and hold vigil. The body of the crewman was now on hold, in the fridge, awaiting Vanuatu’s one and only pathologist to return to the capital.

The morgue

When Dr Crystal Garae arrived at the morgue she had already weighed up her options.

In a job where absolutes are hard to come by, one thing was certain: she would not begin any autopsy until she knew the outcome of the COVID swab she was about to perform. She had been working in a remote village on the northern island of Santo, carrying out an autopsy on an exhumed body when she first heard about ‘the body from the ship’.

Police had sent a request to conduct an autopsy, but there was scant detail except from where the body had come from. Police were hoping she would be able to help them determine how the crewman had died.

She began asking questions. As a precaution, she wanted to know whether the crew had been tested for COVID and when those tests had taken place. What she quickly discovered was that there were more gaps than answers.

Before he departed the Philippines a month earlier, the Filipino crewman had tested negative to the virus. There were test results for many of the other crew, but results were old, most from the previous year. A temperature log for the crew was missing.

International seafarers aren’t required to be tested when they arrive in most ports, unless they are disembarking. Vanuatu did not allow crew to come ashore.

In the days immediately after his body washed up, Vanuatu crime investigators had been onboard the ship to begin their investigation. The police officers had worn PPE at the time, but as the week progressed and questions began to be asked about COVID, they had become more nervous.

Learning where the ship had been prior to arriving in Port Vila did not help.

The news from PNG was not good. COVID was spreading. It was now in every province. And while police had followed protocol, they wanted certainty. They wanted to know what they were dealing with and what risks they had been exposed to.

Officers who’d requested autopsies with Dr Garae would normally be in the room during her autopsies and were relieved to be told they could wait outside. She watched as a technician took the first swab and then another two. It would take an hour for the results of that first swab to be known.

When it came back, there was disbelief. The swab was tested again to be sure, and then a third time. Three tests in total.

All three were all positive.

Dr Garae now had to make a decision. Whether to proceed with an autopsy on a body she knew was COVID positive. Or say no.

She knew that without an autopsy there would be no way to say how he died. His body had no signs of significant trauma, just a small bruise over one eye. She had noted it but marked it inconclusive. She slid the body back into the chiller. Her mind was made up. The mortuary had recently been upgraded, and for the first time in Vanuatu’s history (and in her five years as a pathologist) she did not have to carry out autopsies in the cool of night. After all, the mortuary now had screens and air-conditioning.

Flies and heat no longer determined her work schedule, but the upgrade presented an untested problem.

If she was to find out how the man had died she would need to examine his lungs, brain and stomach. If he was alive when he went into the sea there would be water in his lungs. If he was dead before he fell, there might not be. But that was not an absolute.

Determining death by drowning is difficult to prove.

The most conclusive results generally rely on a witness. But in this case, there were no witnesses, or at least anyone who had been identified.

Cutting open a body produces airborne particles, and with COVID spread most efficiently through the air, the only way to open him up safely would be in a well-ventilated room, with negative air pressure.

She had no way of knowing whether the recently refurbished mortuary met those requirements and no way of finding out. Her colleague’s advice in Fiji, who she often turned to and who had once worked in Vanuatu, was forthright. “Don’t do it unless you have negative air pressure,” he warned.

In a negative air pressure room it is possible to feel air being sucked into the room under a closed door or a slightly opened window. The air also needs to be safely expelled from the room once the autopsy is done. She had no way of knowing whether the recently refurbished mortuary met those requirements and no way of finding out.

Dr Garae felt the weight of the decision she was about to make. She not only had to consider her safety and those of her technicians, she also had to consider her family, her community, and her ongoing ability to do her job.

In a country where the fear of COVID often beats science or reason, medical practitioners risk being sent into quarantine, even when it is not necessary. They also risk being isolated from their family and the community they are seeking to help.

When Dr Garae slid the body back into the fridge it effectively shut the door on any chance of finding out how the Filipino seafarer had died. She and her team of three technicians did not go home that night.

She would spend the night in her rented one-bedroom hospital apartment inside the grounds of Vila Central Hospital. The technician who took the swab would sleep inside the medical lab. A nervous night for both of them as they waited for the government’s next move.

Sunday: action stations

Across Vanuatu the outcome of those three tests set off a flurry of action, and on a Sunday no less.

The COVID-19 Taskforce and the Ministry of Health were summoned to an emergency meeting.

Questions were swirling across social media. Could dead bodies pass on the COVID virus? Was the action of two well-intentioned citizens pulling the body out of the shallows the start of a super-spreader event? Was the presence of a COVID infected body in the morgue a risk?

An order was given for close contacts of the man to be tested and taken into quarantine. A round up began.

The sign on the morgue

Lawyer John Malcolm, his fellow Pirate Stephane Riviere, police and medical staff who had attended the ship, or had been present on the beach where the body washed ashore, were tested first and then later that evening, and were all ordered into hotel quarantine. So too were Dr Garae and her team of mortuary technicians.

World Heath Organization (WHO) guidelines are clear: anyone wearing approved PPE following health department protocols should not be considered a ‘close contact’. But these were nervous, unprecedented times. In Vanuatu, fear was winning over facts.

The morgue was now closed to the public. A sign in Bislama (Vanuatu’s connecting language) posted to its front door said: “TABU BLONG KAM INSAED. YUMI KAT WAN DED BODY INSAED WE I KASEM WAN RABIS SIK. MIFALA NO WANTEM OL FAMILI I KAM INSAED LO DED HAOS.”

The sign made clear that no one was allowed inside the morgue, or ded haos, due to the presence of a body infected with a bad disease. Bislama allows people to communicate across Vanuatu’s hundreds of languages, and while its vocabulary may be limited, its intent was clear.

The Prime Ministerial address

Prime Minister Bob Loughman cleared his throat.

The camera operator cued him in. The Prime Minister was now live  –  Facebook live.

Armed with smart phones, both myself and a VBTC journalist hit record and the Prime Minister’s address was live and being watched by thousands on their smart phones.

As a nation, Vanuatu is both a keen and reluctant adopter of technology. The government is also a big fan of social media  –  at least when they are in charge of the message but not so much when challenged by it. Social media would be the platform on which many Port Vila residents first heard that the capital was moving into an island-style version of lockdown.

In Vanuatu more than one in three people are active on social media. Facebook is a major player in delivering the news, in part due to the fact that Facebook data is free for most phones.

“Last night, authorities from Port Vila hospital confirmed a positive case of COVID-19,” the Prime Minister announced. “It was found on the dead person, who washed ashore at Pango village on April 11, 2021.”

A three-day ban on outbound travel from Vanuatu’s capital island of Efate was declared.

But what chance was there of catching COVID from a dead man? How many people had come in contact with the body and how many did they connect with in the past week?

“Half of Port Vila,” was John Malcolm’s estimate of how many people he had come into contact with since he helped pull the body ashore.

I wanted to know more, even though asking questions of those in power in Vanuatu is no easy business. Politicians like talking, but not being put on the spot — even for those seeking vital public information.

When I politely asked if I could put some questions to the Prime Minister, the tension in the room was palpable. People shuffled nervously, looked at one other, unsure how the PM would react. The PM’s nod of approval did little to quell the nerves of the room.

In my best Bislama, I asked the question many wanted to know. “Wanem janis wan ded man hemi spredem COVID?” (“What are the chances that the dead man has spread COVID?”)

“It would be very rare for a dead man to pass on the virus,” the PM responded.

At that point, those of us in the room were not aware of the round-up of people into quarantine taking place across Port Vila. A few more questions were asked, and then it was over.

When I first arrived in Vanuatu I had wondered why there was so little public information available in print or online, and so few stories of its people, particularly in a nation of story-tellers where kastom, the traditions that many lived their lives by, was handed down by word of mouth.

I had previously been warned by a senior government official that I “should be careful”, although at the time I was unsure for what reason I was being warned. I could only guess that previous questions I had asked must have upset someone who thought I was challenging their authority.

On social media, as this national address and press conference was broadcast live, Vanuatu’s trolls responded to questions being asked by a foreigner. They wanted to know why questions were being asked of the PM and by an expat, and worse still, a woman.

There is only one answer: asking questions in the public interest is, by any measure, a very worthwhile day out.

In the days that followed my act of ‘committing journalism’ was remarked upon by friends and strangers alike. But there was one question to which there still was no answer: why all this panic about a dead man?

Sure, the crewman had tested positive for COVID, but what was the chance of catching a disease from a dead body, someone who was no longer breathing? COVID was not Ebola. It was an airborne disease.

Was there another reason? And what was happening with Inge Kosan and the 12 other crew members onboard?

Who was he?

When I first started to write about the man who had washed ashore, I wanted to know not just how he died, but who was he?

Surely his family must have been told by now. How must they be feeling? What had they been told? The dead seafarer was no longer front-page news in Vanuatu. His story was now page 4 in the Daily Post a very thin paper, under the headline, “Negotiations now underway to send deceased Filipino home”.

I start making calls in earnest, reaching out across the world to the Philippines and Australia. His cause of death may never be solved, but he deserved more than the indignity of dying unnamed and unknown.

I contacted the ship’s agents in Vanuatu. They referred me to their Vanuatu lawyer. The lawyer in turn, referred me to someone in Singapore, who most likely was also a lawyer but with the title, ‘Crisis Response Manager’.

His reply and title were enough to make any sentient journalist suspicious. I would most definitely keep digging.

“At this stage, our immediate priorities are to support the bereaved and to safeguard their privacy during this difficult period,” the reply came from Mr Crisis Response Manager. “I’m sorry we can’t be of further assistance to you. I hope you can understand our position on this.”

It was clear the shipping company wouldn’t help me get in touch with the man’s family.

To get to them, I would need a name. My fear was that we would never find out anything about him and that he would end up ignominiously in Vanuatu as ‘the body who washed ashore’.

I contacted a former colleague of mine in Manila. In 2018, Bernard Testa and I had worked together in Manila, covering the country’s ‘war on drugs’ led by Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte.

Together we had managed to track down an eye-witness to murder carried out by police. Now, we were looking for the family of a dead man. I knew he could be trusted to work quietly and was confident we could find the man’s name and family.

A few days after he began his search I received a message. He was no longer able to continue working as he was now in quarantine. The virus had got him. From home, he deputised one of his friends, who’d recently recovered from the virus, to continue the search.

He has a name!

And then, success. Loose lips and ships, I suddenly had a name.

Nicomedes Tiangan Sasana.

The ‘dead man’ was suddenly a person. A man, with a past and a family, but who I would never meet.

First, we found his engineer’s certificate. Then a Facebook profile. For two weeks I had searched and now suddenly here he was, standing next to his wife and two daughters, behind a cake on a table.

Smiling, middle-aged, happy. He was a man who loved and was loved.

Sasana was now much more than the description I had been given that day by those who recovered his body, “a man of medium height, average build, wearing a black T-shirt and shorts”.

Next I was online talking to two of his sisters. Bless and Carm were keen to speak — they wanted to know all they could about their brother’s last day. I told them what I had discovered, and they told me about their eldest sibling, who friends and family called Jojie.

I learned that he was the eldest of nine children. His parents, who had worked hard to ensure all their children made it to university, were still alive and had depended on financial assistance that came from his time at sea.

He was one of many seafarers in his family. And in the ‘time before COVID,’ whenever his ship had docked in Port Vila, he’d meet up with friends in Port Vila’s strong Filipino community. It was his favourite South Pacific port.

But that was then.

The cop shop

Vanuatu’s Chief Criminal Investigator Jack Joses Tallis was suddenly standing in front of me, apologising for being late. I had been passing time sitting in the only chair outside his office, playing Words with Friends on my phone and had not seen him appear.

He invited me into his office to talk about the investigation into Sasana’s death. “We collected a few statements from the ship’s crew,” Detective Tallis said. “We needed to do more.”

But COVID stopped the investigation dead in its tracks. Police investigators had gone onboard the ship while the body was in the morgue. They had requested an autopsy, as was required for all suspicious deaths.

But as soon as the body in the morgue tested positive, the decision was made that no autopsy would take place, and the police investigation ended.

Three police investigators had gone onto the ship to take some statements. No investigator had asked about CCTV footage from onboard the ship.

I asked him if he was any wiser as to how he thought Sasana died, after reading the statements. There were three possibilities, he told me. Did he jump hoping to live, or to die, or was he pushed? “Without a cause of death, we had nothing to investigate. We can make no conclusion, because we don’t know what is true,” Detective Tallis said.

Investigating crime is a complex matter involving many pieces. If one part of the chain breaks, a final outcome may never be reached.

“We wanted justice to be done,” Detective Tallis said in apologetic tones. “We wanted to do more.”

But such was the fear of COVID that the investigation was closed before it could be completed.

The NDMO cleared Inge Kosan to leave. And in the views of many in authority, the sooner the better.

Man of the moment

Dr Len Tarivonda is the Director of Vanuatu’s Health Department.

The first time he and I met, Director Tarivonda was in the midst of what the development world calls a ‘complex crisis’.

It was April 2020 and a category 5 cyclone, named Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold was heading towards Vanuatu.

A national election campaign was underway, and the government was in caretaker mode. Its bureaucrats were crammed into a room, trying to work out how to respond to two looming disasters; one they could see, and the other potentially much more insidious.

In that crowded room, Dr Tarivonda had been hunched over listening, slightly rocking in his chair, as though he was conserving energy knowing he would soon need to spring into action.

Throughout the response to TC Harold and in the early days of the onset of the pandemic our paths crossed many times.

“We know each other now,” he said to me when we meet in his office, a year later, to talk about the government’s response to the body of the crewman.

In the Pacific, relationships matter.

“It is quite the unusual situation,” he mused. “We are a COVID-free country and a body washes up that is positive, and what do you do with a body that is positive?”

Exactly. That was my question.

For more than a month, Vanuatu had grappled with this problem. With borders closed, limited flights, and international aviation protocols dictating that bodies should be embalmed before transport, negotiating the repatriation of a COVID positive body back to his family in the Philippines was proving difficult.

After almost four weeks a decision was made: Nicomedes Tiangan Sasana would be buried in Port Vila.

But first, there is something else that has been bugging me. And it is about the rest of the crew. When Inge Kosan sailed, we knew Sasana was positive, and we knew the authorities had subsequently tested the rest of the crew. But whether they had tested positive wasn’t released until after Inge Kosan had cleared out of Vanuatu waters.

No wonder authorities were worried: 11 out of the 12 other crew members were positive. When did they contract it? And how? Who caught the virus first? Was there any way to find out?

Testing in Vanuatu answered some of those questions. Sasana’s viral load was easily detected indicating a high rate of prevalence. The same went for some of the other crew, who were now showing symptoms. The remaining positive crewman were considered historic cases. They had either caught the virus and recovered or had never had any symptoms.

With 11 positive crew onboard, authorities decided Inge Kosan could and should leave. This is despite some of the crew displaying COVID symptoms.

Questions of whether medical assistance should have been offered to them was not something Vanuatu appeared willing to contemplate.

But there has been a sense of unease amongst some members of the medical fraternity about whether Vanuatu should have done more. Should more assistance have been offered to Sasana, who was desperate to leave the ship, and what of the COVID positive crew?

And there were questions for the shipping company, too. What testing had they carried out? What protocols had been followed on board? Had all paperwork been followed?

Finding out that information from the shipping company was proving difficult. The ship had sailed and the incident was well wrapped in layers of lawyers across many countries.

Vanuatu is obliged under International Maritime Law to extend a helping hand, but someone, somewhere decided that Vanuatu’s duty of care had been extended far enough.

When the Health COVID Task Force group met there were few voices in the room willing to stand up for the crew.

The Inge Kosan was now a ship with no friends. Its next scheduled port on it fuel supply was Honiara in the Solomon Islands. But the Solomons suddenly had no appetite for the ship or the fuel it was carrying.

COVID-safe haven

The captain reached out to authorities in Queensland, Australia.

A year into the pandemic, the crew onboard Inge Kosan were about to benefit from a decision made by Maritime Safety Queensland to take the front foot in responding to the pandemic.

The captain’s request to allow his COVID infected ship to enter Australian waters made its way up the chain from ship agent to Angus Mitchell, the general manager of Maritime Safety Queensland.

By this time news of Sasana’s death and the COVID ship had made it into Australian mainstream media. Australia’s main seafarer’s unions had raised concerns about testing protocols for foreign vessels docking in southern states.

“But we didn’t become involved until the vessel owner approached us,” Angus Mitchell told me over the phone from Brisbane. Mitchell is a naval officer who served in the Navy’s patrol vessels in Australia’s northern waters at the start of the government’s implementation of tough border controls targeted at asylum seekers arriving by sea.

A fluent Indonesian speaker, he had risen through the ranks of the Royal Australian Navy and was well-versed in the complexities of international maritime law and the many layers within governments.

As CEO of Maritime Safety Queensland, Mitchell had overseen the state becoming one of the world’s few safe harbours for COVID-infected ships to anchor and for those onboard to be treated.

The regulatory authority identified three response priorities: the first was the welfare of the crew; the second was keeping COVID out of the maritime and general community; and the third was the facilitation of trade.

“Once that approach was made, it was quite simple for us to say yes because we already had protocols in place with vessels like this,” he said.

Since the pandemic more than 17,000 ship arrivals have been managed in Queensland ports, including 7,000 crew changeovers and 500 medical treatments.

One more ship from Vanuatu was not going to bust the system.

As soon as the ship arrived at an outer anchorage, the system went into effect.

Medical contractors were sent out by a police vessel to test the crew, and a decision was made to take the one COVID negative crewman off the ship for his own safety and place him into hotel quarantine.

Desk officer Sean Dumlag was about to set foot on dry land for the first time in seven months. He was on his way to a four and a half star hotel in the middle of Brisbane.

The Hotel Grand Chancellor would be home for the next two weeks while he waited to see if he had contracted the virus. He would need to provide two negative tests before he would be released.

When I spoke to Sean he would not talk about Sasana, saying he had been told not to speak to the media about him. But we talked more generally about COVID and the fear that he and the crew had of contracting the virus. After seven months at sea, Dumlag had two hopes, that his final test would be negative and that he would be allowed to go home to the Philippines.

A dignified send-off

­Cam and Bless Sasana are relieved that an agreement has finally been reached for their brother to be buried in Port Vila. In the past month negotiations have been conducted across three countries, the Philippines and Australia, with Vanuatu in the middle.

Complex protocols about transporting bodies in a time of a global pandemic, and closed borders led to the decision that Sasana would be buried in a tomb, in the hopes that one day his family would be able to arrange for his body to be exhumed and returned to his home in the southern Philippines.

On the morning of his burial, the medical team prepared his body, solemn process overseen by Dr Garae. First the body was washed, then placed inside one body bag, then another, and then into an international standard coffin with an inner seal.

The sombre funeral was conducted with full PPE

Then it was closed. Hospital attendants and senior staff gathered at the morgue. For the first time in a month, its doors were opened. The ‘closed’ sign was removed and the warning notice advising the public to stay away was taken down.

Outside, the Philippine’s honorary consul and his wife were waiting. There was discussion about whether we should wear masks. I was offered one and took it to be polite. But I knew that there was zero chance of those observing being at risk of catching the virus. The real danger of being dressed in full PPE was dehydration.

The PPE parade was for show. It was about assuaging community fears, demonstrating that the safest of safe standards were at play. And it was about allowing staff to feel safe while working.

As I stood there with a mask in my hand, I couldn’t help think that by adopting this “over-kill” response to transporting a body that was almost certainly no longer COVID positive and locked away in an airtight coffin capsule, this astronaut-looking response was more likely to generate fear of the virus than negate it.

The driver of the hearse, who would have no contact with the body at any point, wore gloves. And so too did the Catholic priest administering the service, which he delivered muffled through his mask, while it was live streamed to Sasana’s family in the Philippines.

His coffin was lowered into a tomb by workers dressed in their ‘space suits’. The director of the Port Vila Central Hospital and the country’s one and only pathologist were among the witnesses who had come to pay their respects.

A dignified send-off. In death, Vanuatu did what it is very good and practised at. A very decent burial.

Ginny Stein is writer in residence at the Emalus Campus of the University of the South Pacific.


See Croakey’s archive of Long Reads.

 

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