ARCHIVAL (BRITISH PATHÉ FILM, 1967):
American Samoa, one of the loveliest spots in all the Pacific. A place of rare beauty, of constantly changing scenery.
NARRATION: Think fast: What are some things you know about American Samoa? If you’re like most Americans, probably not much. Maybe that its Democratic caucus was, for some reason, the only contest won by Mike Bloomberg – even despite this photo. Or maybe you know it as the site of the fictional alma mater of shady Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman. Or maybe, because people with Samoan parents are an estimated 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than other Americans, Junior Seau or Troy Polamalu come to mind.
But today, there are other reasons people are talking about American Samoa. As American preparedness has come under scrutiny during the coronavirus.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, NEWSHOUR, 3-20-20):
ANCHOR: What was inadequate about the initial response?
KENNETH BERNARD: Advance planning. Many of the things that we’re doing right now all could have been done in advance. Because we’ve known an epidemic is coming.
NARRATION: The strange saga of a few tiny islands that came under American control nearly 5,000 miles from the mainland has some lessons to teach us.
All we need to do is go back about a hundred years.
ARCHIVAL (NATIONAL ARCHIVES):
America is called to arms…
NARRATION: As World War I was winding down across the globe, deep in the Pacific, the fate of the Samoan people would now be separated by the actions of two different imperialists: New Zealand controlled the islands to the west; America ran the territory to the East. Enter the 1918 flu.
The 1918 pandemic was a monster, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. And nowhere would the disease be felt more acutely than New Zealand’s newly occupied Western Samoa.
In late October 1918, a passenger ship left Auckland with the disease already spreading on board. When it reached Western Samoa, New Zealand officials there allowed the ship to disembark with a clean bill of health.
Influenza tore through the native Samoans, and nearly a quarter of the islands’ inhabitants died. In the public inquiries that followed, the islands’ administrator, New Zealand Col. Robert Logan, came under intense scrutiny, particularly his attitude toward the native Samoans. He would later describe them as quote “like children” who should be grateful for what he had done for them. Yikes.
But the biggest scandal concerned a telegram he got from the man in charge of neighboring American Samoa, Naval Governor John Martin Poyer. Poyer appeared to offer assistance to Logan, who reportedly ignored it. That’s likely because American Samoa had made a critical move – setting up a quarantine against his islands.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILMS, 1931):
Yonder mansion among the palms is the residence of the naval commandant governor of American Samoa, only possession of the United States in the Southern Hemisphere.
NARRATION: And that brings us to American Samoa – if New Zealand’s islands suffered the world’s worst case of the flu, some 50 miles away the American territory was one of the miracles of the 1918 pandemic.
Under Governor Poyer’s swift and strict quarantine, not a single person on the islands contracted a confirmed case of the disease. It helps explain why the territory remained under American control, while Samoans to the West, horrified by New Zealand’s leadership during the flu crisis, would later establish independence.
So, how exactly did American Samoa pull this off? Well, first, it was a tiny colony of 8,000 people run by a naval commander.
And along with the unilateral authority to lock down the territory, Governor Poyer also had strong buy-in from residents. Like lots of Pacific islands at the time, American Samoa had experience with epidemics. Thanks to previous outbreaks of measles and smallpox in the region, they had a predesignated quarantine facility that could be readied within two hours. And on top of that, Samoan communities were also governed by a traditional system of chiefs. Poyer enlisted them to help patrol the shores, and make sure not even small boats slipped in over the reefs.
American Samoa also sought information and used it. Authorities in Western Samoa had been underinformed about the pandemic. And though American Samoa lacked official communication from the U.S. government, Poyer and his staff sought out press reports and had a plan in place by the time Western Samoa was in trouble.
Today, the story of the Samoas is a reminder of the need for all places, no matter how remote, to prepare for a pandemic.
During the 1918 outbreak in the continental U.S., the list of so-called “escape communities” that avoided the onslaught of disease was tiny. A rural town in Colorado, a naval station in San Francisco Bay, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in upstate New York. Like American Samoa, they were small and isolated.
And here’s the thing: At some point, all of them saw at least some cases of the flu, even if it was well after the rest of the world. In American Samoa’s case, a new strain of influenza would finally come ashore in 1926.
In our increasingly interconnected world, no nation, no community should plan on escaping a global pandemic.
Despite being a lot bigger than it was a century ago, with a population of 56,000, American Samoa is once again the only U.S. state or territory without a confirmed case of this pandemic.
But that has not impacted the islands’ sense of urgency. In recent weeks, American Samoa has sent pleading letters to Washington, seeking ventilators, testing kits and outreach to the territories on how to manage the coronavirus. And the steps they’ve taken are the same as here: closing schools, banning gatherings, limiting public transit.
Because in 2020, no place is an island – even when you are, literally, an island.