Palau remains on a very short list of countries in the world which have not seen a single case of COVID since the start of the pandemic. Most of the countries which remain COVID-free are Pacific island nations, due to their relative isolation and limited entry-points. However, President Remengesau’s statement earlier this month that “Palau cannot avoid all contact with the rest of the world” serves as a sobering reminder that the virus threat has not disappeared.
One of the advantages Palau has in having remained COVID-free for so long is that the rest of the world has provided 7 months of trial and error to determine what works and what doesn’t in COVID protection. With the vast amounts of conflicting information and misinformation circulating through the media, the Ministry of Health has been careful to provide up-to-date information to the public, based on research from such institutions as the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Health organizations agree that social distancing is key. The CDC says that it is safe to regularly maintain about 1 meter between yourself and others to avoid taking in liquid droplets from their mouths or noses which may carry the virus. Palau is no stranger to social distancing and quarantine, which for many have been part of daily life within the past several months. Many online posts by the MOH, some of which are drawn from the WHO or the CDC, also emphasize maintaining healthy diets and weight, and exercising daily.
In the United States, Pacific people living in communities generally have higher rates of infection and fatalities than the rest of their states. Speculation by medical professionals is that transmission occurs more quickly among Pacific islanders due to communal styles of living, and it proves more fatal because of the high percentages of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart troubles, found in islander communities. Since effectively recovering from COVID relies upon the body’s immune system to fight it off, medical professionals stress the importance of a diet which bolsters the body’s immune system and reduces the danger of an underlying health problem. The WHO recommends limiting intake of salt, sugar, fats, and oils, and eating a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables.
The use of masks for COVID protection is a point of conflict in many parts of the world, including Palau. Many report that their relatives refuse to wear masks in public in fear of the stigma attached to it and fear of being ridiculed. The majority of medical professionals, however, emphasize that the use of masks is potentially life-saving.
The WHO, which once warned healthy people against using masks because of the “false sense of security” they give, now promotes the use of medical and fabric masks in public. The WHO has stressed that, even though masks alone will not stop you from getting sick, there is research to suggest that they decrease the risk of virus transmission. In COVID-infected areas, the WHO says, medical masks should be worn by those with symptoms, workers taking care of patients, those over 60, and those with underlying health problems. Fabric masks should be used in public areas by people who are under 60 years old and who have neither COVID symptoms or underlying health conditions.
The WHO also emphasizes that masks should cover the mouth, nose, and chin, and that medical masks should be thrown out after a single use, while fabric masks should be thoroughly washed and sealed in a bag between uses.
The use of hand sanitizer has become commonplace in the workplace. However, the CDC has recommended washing hands with soap and water for twenty seconds after sneezing, coughing, or touching dirty surfaces, and using hand sanitizer which is over 60% alcohol only in the absence of soap and water. The alcohol theoretically kills the virus, but when sneezing into a hand or touching a surface which is visibly dirty, it doesn’t as effectively wash away all the microorganisms as soap and water. In those cases, the CDC maintains, soap and water is a much better option.
The MOH continues to post updated health information on its website and Facebook page, at the same time as frontline workers undergo additional training for COVID monitoring. But, as the Government of Palau continues to face the decision of whether to open borders or remain closed to the rest of the world, many remain mindful that, eventually, COVID-prevention may be the responsibility of the individuals within the community. (By: Adam Somers)