Last week, videos from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the coronavirus-infected aircraft carrier docked at the Pacific island of Guam, made rounds on Twitter and Facebook. In the videos, a mass of sailors cheer for the carrier’s commander – who had been fired after demanding that his superiors take action to stem the ship’s COVID-19 outbreak – as he leaves the vessel.
Most social media users and news outlets that shared the videos described the scene as a heartwarming moment – a hero’s sendoff for a leader who sacrificed his career for his rank and file. “Wrongfully relieved of command but did right by the sailors,” read the caption accompanying one of the Twitter videos. But on Guam, many people saw something different – a careless crowd compromising their shores with a deadly illness.
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“There’s an entire sea of people,” exclaimed Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, co-chair of the political advocacy organisation Independent Guahan, referring to those who cheered on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt as the relieved captain disembarked. “Hardly any of them are wearing masks. Nobody is social distancing. The captain himself exits the ship without a mask and shakes hands with [someone who was] picking him up … And now we’re hearing that this captain is positive for COVID.”
— Dylan Castillo (@Sotero269) April 3, 2020
The videos’ divergent interpretations highlight what many on Guam – a US territory with a hefty permanent military presence – see as an all-too-common phenomena: their community’s erasure and subjugation at the hands of the armed forces. They claim that, since the USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in mid-March, the US Navy has made unilateral, opaque decisions that have put their communities at risk. And, as US media continue to closely cover the ship’s coronavirus outbreak, local residents question why their concerns are not addressed.
Guam is an unincorporated territory, with about 165,000 people, including more than 60,000 Indigenous Chamorro, living on the island. But for the federal government, it effectively functions as a tactical military outpost close to East Asia; while residents of Guam are US citizens, they are not given voting representation in Congress, and they have little say over what happens on the large naval and air bases on their island, which together take up about a third of the territory’s land.
In recent years, tensions between the military and some of Guam’s residents have escalated. The US Department of Defense has moved forward with plans to significantly expand its presence on the island, and training and construction by the US Navy and Marines have damaged vital forests and Indigenous cultural sites. Given these tensions and the military’s tendency to take over, many local advocates were apprehensive when the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt arrived on March 27 with at least 23 confirmed COVID-19 cases. At the time, Guam already had 51 of its own confirmed cases, including one death.
On March 29, eight Indigenous, environmental, and other community groups signed onto a letter to Guam’s governor, Lou Leon Guerrero, expressing concerns regarding what they perceived to be the Navy’s attempt to use Guam as a quarantine zone without the local government’s input. “We are concerned that their approach to exclude you from being a valued voice in critical decision-making will place more of our people, especially our manamko, at risk,” they wrote, using the Chamorro word for elders.
Referencing a statement from the Navy’s chief of naval operations, in which he wrote that the Navy’s “top two priorities are taking care of our people and maintaining mission readiness”, the groups also urged that the “narrative must shift to include prioritising the health and safety of our local people.”
In terms of concrete action, the groups implored the governor to request that all the Navy’s isolation and quarantine efforts be restricted to the military bases on Guam – which contain barracks and the military’s own hospital – to reduce the chances of sailors infecting community members. They also asked that the Navy share its outsized resources with the community by helping to erect a temporary overflow hospital, and by donating personal protective equipment and hard-to-get coronavirus test kits. The Roosevelt has obtained enough kits to test almost all of its 4,800 crew members; as of Thursday, the government of Guam had tested 678 people. At least 447 Roosevelt crew members had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, a large jump from the 286 positive cases the Navy announced on Wednesday.
On April 1, Guam’s governor, together with the Navy’s Pacific fleet commander, Admiral John Aquilino, announced that Roosevelt crew members suffering from COVID-19 would be held at the naval base, while those who test negative for the novel coronavirus would be quarantined for 14 days inside civilian hotels on Guam.
“I know there will be a small chorus of cynics who will oppose the position,” the governor said after announcing the move, “but now is not the time for ‘us versus them.'”
Despite the governor’s characterisation, local advocates view their concerns as neither cynical nor overly confrontational. They argue that, even though only sailors who test negative are being quarantined in hotels outside of the bases, the virus’s especially long incubation period provides no guarantee that they are not compromised. The advocates also point to the history of military overreach on their island as evidence that they need to remain extra vigilant.
“Constantly the people of Guam are being told that we have to make room for the needs of the military,” said Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero of Independent Guahan. “Why would we welcome potentially more positive cases anywhere near our community?” she asked, noting that recent estimates from the governor’s medical advisory group indicate that total COVID-19 cases on Guam could surpass hospital capacity as soon as April 23.
“We just care deeply about our island community,” said Kisha Borja-Kicho’cho’, member of I Hagan Famalao’an Guahan, a Chamorro women’s organisation. “That is the priority for us – the health and safety of our women, our children, our men, everyone in our community.”
The advocates have expressed special concern for their community’s elders, who are especially at risk if young and healthy sailors are not careful enough. They also worry for the workers staffing the hotels in which the ship’s crew is quarantining, since they represent the most direct route between sailors and the community.
According to Lieutenant Commander Rick Moore, spokesman for the military’s Joint Region Marianas, the quarantine is an “entirely military-led operation”. Civilian hotel workers “prepare meals and laundry service”, which are then delivered by service members wearing protective equipment, ensuring that the workers never come into contact with quarantined sailors.
Moore also said that the military is “focused on providing the conditions that provide Guam and [the Northern Mariana Islands, another US territory] with the necessary testing and treatment capabilities to protect the community”. He pointed to the medical battalion and Marine logistics group that arrived on April 1 to respond to the Roosevelt situation, saying they “could also be expanded to assist the government of Guam, if required.”
When asked about the governor’s inclusion in the decision-making process regarding the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Moore said Lou Leon Guerrero and Rear Admiral John Menoni, commander of the region’s naval forces, “hold frequent calls and meetings”. But many on the island see the relationship as little more than a show.
“It makes it seem as though she had some kind of power, but really she didn’t,” Leon Guerrero said. Quarantining on Guam, she added, “is something that they could have done with or without her consent, because of Guam’s status.”
As of Thursday, Guam has had 125 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including four deaths.
More than 3,100 sailors have so far moved ashore, confirming for the advocates the power the military has on their island, even in times of crisis.
“It’s basically a question of whose health and safety matters more,” said Borja-Kicho’cho’. “And it’s so frustrating because we already know the answer to that. We know it’s not us.”