(third of a four-part series of Year in Review)
The cases of coronavirus worldwide is surging, surpassing 11 million. The United States also officially notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
In Palau, the community is less fearful of the unknown, with the border closed and the first repatriation in June successful, bringing back Palauans home was more acceptable. Schools reopen and restrictions lifted. President Remengesau is confident that Palau has been brought back to “some sense of normalcy.”
On July 8, President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. signed the order authorizing a government-paid stipend to frontline workers as the global pandemic affects Palau. The stipend serves as an additional compensation for time and activities which “entail an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19”.
But Palau is bracing for a projected revenue shortfall this FY 2020 will reach $23 million, $2 million more than what was earlier projected according to a report from Minister of Finance Elbuchel Sadang.
Minister Sadang assured that the $2 million can be covered by collections over the next 3 months. “We will have a balanced budget by September 30,” said Sadang.
Due to the impact of COVID-19, the expected $66.5 million local revenue collection for FY 2020 Unified Budget could not be met with the Ministry of Finance reporting only 65% ($43.2 million) collected at the end of this 3rd quarter. Earlier when COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the projected loss of local revenue was pegged at $21 million.
Palau also started to receive military personnel from the US. The 122 members of the Koa Moana Task Force arrived in Palau to conduct humanitarian missions , specifically in Peleliu.
The visit is seen by President Tommy Remngesau as filling the void left by the absence of tourists.
The arrival of the Koa Moana Task Force was earlier questioned by Peleliu leadership and the community for fear of COVID-19 transmission into their community.
Task Force Koa Moana 20 said that it diligently planned and adhered to strict COVID-19 mitigation measures to include pre-deployment quarantine, screening, and testing.
All Marines and sailors tested negative for COVID-19.
President Tommy Remengesau Jr. however cautioned about the problem of climate change despite the toll of the coronavirus to the world.
The pandemic, he said, has shifted many nations’ focus away from climate change but urged that leaders need to keep the discussion and action going on this looming crisis.
The government has also launched the Temporary Work Force Program to have people that have lost jobs due to the impact ofCOVID-19, provide services to government agencies and non-profit organizations and be compensated for it.
The Government pays minimum wage to all accepted applicants regardless of expertise with no deductions.
The program is meant to provide some basic means of income but with services rendered as opposed to just getting weekly cash relief without doing any work.
“We need to slow and stop climate change if we are going to address our ocean crisis, and extreme weather is just one example of how these two are related, “ he said.
The U.S. reached five million Covid-19 cases while globally there had been 20 million cases.
In Palau, election fever heats up as four , four candidates have declared their intention to seek the presidency, battling it out for the primary election.
But the US and Palau’s relationship are coming into play. The United States CDC (Center for Disease Control) has informed Palau that it will provide FDA approved vaccines for COVID-19 to Palau as early as November of 2020.
It was also the time that a high level official from the US will be visiting Palau.
Former Defense Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Palau .
During the three -hour visit, Esper also reinforces the US ’s vision of free and open Indo-Pacific.
“Today we discuss the importance of the United States Compact of Free Association with Palau. The United States is proud to guarantee Palau’s defense agreement., which has brought us closer together for decades, economically, strategically and otherwise” Esper said.
Remengesau sees the visit as an opportunity to have discussions with the US on financial aid, infrastructure development and an enhanced military presence in Palau.
The president said the visit “gives us those of us in Palau a great sense of security and a sense of stability heading into the future,” he said.
Negotiations to extend the Compact are ongoing and Sec. Esper and President Remengesau are both hopeful on the swift conclusion of the talks.
For Palau, the visit was not only historic but an opportunity to get more support from its
closest ally to get out of its economic woes as a result of a tourism standstill due to COVID-19.
The Remengesau government continues to provide displaced employees, especially in the tourism sector aid to weather the COVID-19 impacts.
Despite the lack of tourism, the government said construction activity is providing stimulus to the tourism-reliant economy.
This month, the U.S. has recorded its 200,000th Covid-19 death with a global confirmed cases of 30 million.
In Guam, by September 26, there have been a total of 2,354 officially reported cases of COVID-19 with 42 deaths.
In Palau, President Remengesau announces the country will host an in-person meeting among the leaders of Kiribati, Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
The Micronesian group remains free of the coronavirus.
The group also reaffirmed their backing for the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios, to become the new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Zackios is up against Tonga’s candidate Amelia Kinahoi-Siamomua, who is head of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Gender section in London; as well as the outgoing Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna; former Pacific Community head Dr Jimmie Rodgers from Solomon Islands and former Fiji Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.
The Micronesia said it’s their turn to provide the next Secretary General.
By this time, The country goes to the polls for its primary elections which will decide the two candidates who will face off November’s presidential election.
After the September 22 primary, Vice President Raynold Oilouch and Surangel Whipps Junior advanced to the November race for the Palau presidency.
Following the former Defense Secretary’s visit to the country, the President urged the United States military to build a more permanent presence in the nation, though the leader said it was not pertaining to a base.
“Palau’s request to the US military remains simple – build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” the president’s letter to Esper said.
In terms of COVID-19 , Palau had close calls, one is after the Filipino construction worker returning home from Palau tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in the Philippines. Upon request by Palau’s Ministry of Health Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a different lab certified by the Republic of the Philippines Department of Health conducted another test, an RT-PCR COVID-19 test and the result came back negative for COVID-19.
Another scare was a news report that Esper’s team traveling in the Indo-Pacific region who helped handle his trip arrangements had tested positive for Covid-19, but it turned out that the aide was not part of the visit of the official to Palau.
Campaign season for the upcoming Nov. 3 election also continues, billboards of candidates also adorned the streets.