While President Trump’s national declaration of emergency on March 13 included few concrete steps to control the virus, Moliga’s declaration less than a week later had an immediate impact. Schools were closed, travelers from affected countries faced full quarantine upon arrival, and all public gatherings were suspended until further notice. Citing the territory’s limited health facilities, Moliga warned that “inordinate challenges expose the Territory of American Samoa to epic vulnerabilities subjecting all its residents to unprecedented health, economic, and social risks.” A subsequent declaration from June 1 prohibited crew members of cargo and fishing vessels from disembarking in American Samoa.
Recent virus outbreaks — including Zika in 2016, dengue fever in 2017 and 2018, measles in 2019 — had prepared most American Samoans to be vigilant and follow official health guidelines. In fact, Moliga’s declaration continued the state of emergency that had been put in place following a measles outbreak in fall 2019 that had killed 83 people in neighboring independent Samoa and added a separate state of emergency for the new coronavirus. But more strikingly, the U.S. territory in the South Pacific has been so successful in keeping covid-19, the coronavirus’s disease, at bay because policymakers remembered the islands’ extraordinary escape from a previous global pandemic, just over a century ago.
During the influenza pandemic in 1918 and 1919, American Samoa, then administered by the U.S. Navy, established a year-long quarantine and managed to keep the deadly flu out of the islands. While neighboring Western Samoa, occupied by New Zealand troops, suffered one of the worst proportional mortality rates in the world, no American Samoan died.
Located halfway between Honolulu and Sydney, the Samoan Islands emerged on the maps of U.S. policymakers in the years after the Civil War. In 1872, a U.S. Navy commander negotiated a treaty with Samoan leaders that guaranteed the right to build a coaling station in the harbor of Pago Pago on the small eastern island of Tutuila. By the 1880s, several empires were scrambling for control over the Pacific: Great Britain and France with long-standing interests, newcomers such as Germany and the United States, and later Japan.
After the War of 1898 against Spain, U.S. naval strategists grew more alert to the need for coaling stations to protect new island territories in the Pacific, from the Philippines and Guam to Wake Island and Hawaii. In 1899, a U.S. diplomat visiting Samoa urged his colleagues in Washington to keep Pago as “the Gibraltar of the Pacific.” Later that year, an international treaty united the major western islands of Savai’i and Upolu into a German colony, while the United States was guaranteed Tutuila — the major island in the east. Mainly concerned with protecting Pago Pago as a naval base, the U.S. naval administration instituted a system of indirect colonial rule and took relatively little interest in the local affairs of Samoans.
Like other people under colonial rule, Samoans have long been exposed to deadly diseases. In 1893, a New Zealand steam ship brought measles to Western Samoa, killing over 1,000 people in a few months. Later, in one of the first actions of World War I, New Zealand landed troops in German Samoa and took over the colony without bloodshed. American Samoa, 40 miles to the east, remained an unincorporated U.S. territory under the control of the Navy.
In November 1918, another steamer from New Zealand brought good news about the armistice in Europe and, at the same time, several flu-infected passengers who would spell bad news for Western Samoa, still under New Zealand military administration. As the virulent 1918 flu spread like wildfire, it killed over 50 million people across the globe and some 675,000 Americans on the mainland of the United States.
When the pandemic hit Western Samoa, the New Zealand military administration failed to quarantine the islands, leading to the death of over 20 percent of the population in a matter of weeks. To add insult to injury, Western Samoa’s military governor, Robert Logan, blamed “ill-disciplined” Samoan nurses for this disaster and deliberately refused outside help. The flu killed so many titled chiefs, church leaders and other community leaders that it cut a deep wound into Samoan society that is still felt today.
Meanwhile, Logan’s counterpart in American Samoa, Naval Gov. John M. Poyer, acted promptly to keep the virus out of Tutuila. For months, Poyer had been following the worsening flu pandemic in newspapers and daily radio briefings from Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C. In late October 1918, he decided to take action and ordered a quarantine against all ship traffic coming to Tutuila. Two weeks after the first flu infections became known in Western Samoa, Poyer ordered a complete five-day quarantine on all vessels from Western Samoa.
Crucially, Poyer’s order from Nov. 23, 1918, enlisted Samoan chiefs and village leaders to patrol Tutuila’s coastlines and prevent boats from reaching Tutuila. Indeed, without the support of powerful Samoan district chiefs, who were in charge of the island’s three major political subdivisions, the quarantine would have stood little chance of success. Poyer warned American Samoans that “any disobedience of the order may result in the deaths of many people. It is of utmost importance that the order be strictly obeyed and carried out.”
American Samoa remained under quarantine from November 1918 until mid-1920. It worked. In stark contrast to Western Samoa, not a single person in American Samoa succumbed to the flu.
A century later, Poyer’s successor appears to have taken that historical lesson. In March, Moliga requested relevant policy information about the 1918 flu from historical experts. Later that month, Tish Peau-Folau, executive director of the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office, sent a batch of historical documents to the governor’s office, including Poyer’s quarantine order from November 1918.
Then, as now, ship crews were not allowed to disembark and nonresident travelers had to go into quarantine in government facilities. But in contrast to 1918, American Samoans are now in charge of setting their own health policies without interference by the U.S. Navy. At the same time, regulations restricting freedom of movement and assembly have been met with greater resistance by residents than a century ago.
American Samoa remains the only inhabited unincorporated U.S. territory that is also “unorganized,” which makes American Samoans the only people born on U.S. soil who are not automatically U.S. citizens. Among other things, that means American Samoans cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections even though they boast the highest proportional share of armed service members of any U.S. state or territory.
Despite these legal constraints, the territorial government of American Samoa has so far succeeded where the U.S. federal government has utterly failed: keeping its inhabitants safe from covid-19. Its experience during the novel coronavirus crisis reminds us that historical awareness can, indeed, save lives.