You’re living on what is arguably the world’s most remote and isolated inhabited place, the rocky South Pacific volcanic dot of land called Pitcairn Island.
In the late 1700s it was the hide-away home of mutineer sailors from the ship H.M.S. Bounty of “Mutiny on the Bounty” book and movie fame.
Fortunately, your island and the 50 or so people living on it have so far escaped infection of the dreaded COVID-19 virus.
But a ship is headed for your island from New Zealand, with supplies and a handful of people aboard; she’s due sometime on Friday.
Are the ship and the people aboard her clean of the virus, or will some slip-up, some virus clinging to the supplies or the people, change life on Pitcairn Island forever, possibly even leaving it uninhabitable?
That’s the tension-loaded question on the mind of every person on Pitcairn today, according to a news release from the Pitcairn Islands Study Center in Angwin.
The Seventh-day Adventist church provides the connection that led to the Pitcairn Islands Study Center being located at Pacific Union College in rural Napa County.
Pacific Union College is an Adventist college. In the late 19th century, long after the mutineers were dead, Adventist missionary efforts resulted in many conversions.
“Our community is acutely aware of COVID-19,” said Melva Evans, a Pitcairn resident and descendant.
“We are concerned about the possibility of it coming here; but, we do not live in fear of it,” she wrote in an email. “We will do everything possible to prevent it from turning into a catastrophe should the virus arrive.”
A doctor is one of the passengers aboard the island’s supply ship Silver Supporter, reported the news release.
He is scheduled to replace the current Australian doctor on the island whose term of service is ending. Some of the islanders, though ready to welcome the new doctor, worry that the tests and quarantine on the ship he has undergone may not be enough, said the release.
“We are not entirely comfortable with the idea of travelers coming in — at least, not until after the virus situation has flattened out; however, the British Government has determined that their contract employees and local residents who are aboard, will be permitted to land,” said Evans, via an email interview. “So, the risk of exposure has not been entirely eliminated.”
A temporary “hospital” has been set up in what’s normally the island jail, and volunteers have been given training on managing affected persons, should anyone contract the virus, said Evans.
“We don’t have the necessary resources to treat severe cases; so, should someone become desperately ill with COVID-19, the best we could do would be to provide palliative care until the patient recovers—or not,” she wrote.
If isolation is a plus against the virus, the inhabitants of Pitcairn are a truly favored people: their island is located roughly midway between Panama and New Zealand in the vast South Pacific Ocean.
Their closest neighbors – on the island of Mangareva in the Gambier islands group — are hundreds of miles to the northwest. The closest hospital is 1,200 miles away in Tahiti; to the south nothing but water exists until you hit the ice caps of Antarctica. Napa Valley is 4,500 miles away.
Herb Ford, a former Angwin resident, is currently the co-director of the Pitcairn Island Study Center. Now “92-and-a-half,” Ford made his second, and last, trip to Pitcairn Island in 2007.
Today, he’s in regular communication, via email, with a number of the islanders, including Evans.
The remoteness of the island and the “hardscrabble life” of the Mutiny descendants — “all of that intrigues me very, very much,” said Ford.
You can’t just sail up to Pitcairn Island, he pointed out. There is no harbor. The island is surrounded by rugged volcanic cliffs. Only about 100 acres on the island are habitable.
Most visitors come and go via long boats, via a treacherous launch and re-entry procedure.
“Everything about Pitcairn is hard to come by,” he said. “You’re in the middle of nowhere. You’re 1,200 miles away from the closest hospital. Everything that comes to them has to come by ship,” he said.
But with the COVID-19, ships — including the cruise ships that facilitate selling Pitcairn Island goods — have not been visiting.
“This virus is hurting them tremendously,” said Ford.
A big test will come this Friday when the supply ship, the Silver Supporter from New Zealand, will visit the island.
“Yesterday they had quite a training on the use of masks and other things that would protect them. They are trying to do everything they can in case the bug will get to them but it’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen,” Ford said in a phone interview.
“We are still, to a large degree, a faith-based community,” said Evans.
“We prepare to meet challenges head on; we hope and we pray for the world—not just for ourselves; we will use whatever resources are available to deal with the situation; and, trust that God will bless our efforts to care for each other,” said Evans.
“Whatever happens, our faith will see us through.”
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