Maldives – Trouble in Paradise?

Go to the end of the earth, and when you get there, turn left and go another few hundred miles and you will be at the Maldives, an independent Muslim country of ~550k people nearly 500 miles off the southern coast of India. Straddling the equator and comprised of 26 atolls covering 35k square miles, the Maldives is the smallest of all Asian countries and is considered the world’s most geographically dispersed. And it faces a host of profound existential threats.

Being so remote does not insulate the Maldives from global issues. The two most obvious and troubling today involve the Covid pandemic and global warming – both issues exported from the rest of the world. Most immediate are public health risks, exacerbated by an inadequate healthcare infrastructure and caused by diseases brought in by tourists.

Early on in the pandemic, the Maldives was considered one of the world’s most active “Covid hot spots” registering the highest number of infections per million people, according to an analysis by Bloomberg. Fortunately, the total number of fatalities was quite modest with just over 300 to date, but it underscores the ever-present exposure to global health crises, especially for a country so dependent on tourism.

Perhaps reflecting a cultural ambivalence or concerns with raising anxiety among tourists, the public health messaging around Covid risks was effectively invisible. Tucked into the corner of the airport terminal was one lonely sign extolling the merits of responsible behavior. Vaccination requirements were waived years ago.

Notwithstanding that, the country has made meaningful progress on other key healthcare benchmarks. Average life expectancy now stands at 72 years, up from 46 years in 1978. Infant mortality is at 1.2%, a marked improvement from 12.7% in 1977.

Far more disturbing are the implications of global warming and rising sea levels. While some may argue over the intensity or cause or solutions to global warming (or even if it exists at all), for a country with average elevation of 4 feet, 11 inches above sea level those debates are secondary. The highest point in the country is 7 feet, 10 inches.

Anxiety spiked recently with the news that the Thwaites Glacier, affectionately known as the Doomsday Glacier, was facing collapse which would increase global sea levels by an estimated two feet. The Thwaites is 75 miles wide and sits as a dam to “upstream” water flows from the Antarctic; its collapse risks unleashing a cascade of other glacier collapses. Sadly, what happens in the Antarctic, does not stay in the Antarctic.

Even geopolitical issues risk intruding on this idyllic place. While remote and not easily reached, the large number of Russian tourists was notable, notwithstanding a sad and lonely Aeroflot check-in desk. It is hard given what the world is witnessing with Russian aggression toward its neighbors to contemplate what those travelers think while on vacation. But even in such moments, there were examples of exceptional grace. Svetlana, the Maître d’ at one of the finer restaurants, greeted each guest with elegance undoubtedly while thinking of family members left behind in the now destroyed Ukrainian city of Kherson…

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