The year 2021, an unprecedented time in Palau’s modern history, is reflected in the events, people, actions, and challenges told through stories and articles this year. The next four issues summarize the year, giving you the reader, a panoramic view of this extraordinary period of our history.
Palau entered 2021 with the world in a grip of a pandemic that had severely affected economies around the world, Palau included. Palau’s economy in 2021 dropped by 25% compared to FY 2019. While in the middle of such monumental change, a new government with a new leadership took over the helm of the government in January 2021.
The tourism industry, the main economic driver had collapsed and with pandemic still raging worldwide, getting it back on track was the priority of the new incoming administration. Getting at least 80% of the population vaccinated was seen as the only way to get back to “new normal”.
On January 3, the outgoing President Remengesau and the incoming President-Elect Surangel Whipps Jr. along with other national leaders and health workers stood to receive their first jabs of Moderna, the COVID-19 vaccine provided by the United States Operation Warp Speed. The jabs were publicized to calm public fears about the new vaccine and to spark hopes of getting the economy back on track. “We are hoping for the economy to come back and the health of the people should be addressed first,” said Remengesau after getting the vaccine. “Getting vaccinated is a step closer to restarting the economy,” assured Whipps.
Addressing the impact of the pandemic on people’s livelihood was a priority as the pandemic has already been in full swing for nearly 10 months, and the pressure to extend the Coronavirus Relief One-Stop Shop Act (CROSS Act) to September 30, 2021, took place in the remaining 11 days of January before the new administration took office.
President Surangel Whipps Jr. got inaugurated into office on the 21st of January and appointed a young woman, Landisang Kotaro as his chief of staff. He also submitted his appointees to the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Industries. Kaleb Udui Jr. was nominated to Finance while former Minister of MPIIC Charles Obichang was renominated again to the same post.
Further, President Whipps announced that Vice President J. Uduch Sengebau-Senior will be the Minister of State and he will hold on to other ministries until the re-alignment of the ministries is completed before he picks the most appropriate candidates for the remaining ministries.
Ishmael Aguon was appointed by President Whipps as Director of the Bureau of Public Safety. The appointment was hammered by the allegations of misuse of public funds concerning a joint exercise of US military and Palau law enforcement officers held in 2015 named Exercise Tempest Wind. The controversy died down after the statute of limitations expired on the audit.
President Whipps immediately engage Taiwan in the travel bubble discussion with a determined goal of getting the travel bubble with Taiwan launched by March.
The new administration of Whipps signed the first bill into law extending the life of the pandemic relief law, the CROSS Act for two months while the government work on the Unified Budget for FY 2021.
While addressing local matters, the discussion among the Pacific Island Forum leaders to honor the gentlemen’s agreement and allow north pacific member countries’ nominee to become the next PIF Secretary General fell apart.
Five Micronesian nations, Palau, FSM, RMI, Nauru, and Kiribati announced that they will break away from the Pacific Island Forum as promised if the gentlemen’s agreement is not honored. “Obviously, we have different views on what Pacific Way is. Pacific Way is inclusive, it’s not about me,me, me,” stated President Whipps as the regional body splits. Palau made its’ intention to withdraw from PIF clear by closing its embassy in Fiji.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, misinformation about COVID and vaccines attempt to derail the vaccination efforts. Ministry of Health worked with the media to counter the misinformation.
Whipps met his goal and by the end of March, he accompanied a delegation to Taiwan to launch the first north pacific travel bubble between two countries. Over 100 visitors arrived from Taiwan on the first travel bubble flight, the first step toward tourism recovery for Palau. (January to March 2021)