While most countries in the Pacific and around the world are seeking ways and means to bring home their stranded citizens overseas during this COVID-19 pandemic, Palau is sharply divided on the issue.

Whilst President Tommy Remengesau Jr. and his cabinet are preparing for the return of Palau’s students and stranded overseas, Palau’s national congress, State Speakers, some state governors, Council of Chiefs and Mechesil Belau are seeking to stop the planned repatriation of the first 50 citizens out of the 143 stranded outside of Palau.

During the May 28 situation briefing, President Remengesau confirmed that 50 Palauans (students plus stranded citizens) in Guam have gone into the 14-day quarantine in preparation for their planned arrival on June 11.  He reported that all preparations including executing contracts with companies in Guam to administer tests, provide quarantine facilities, provide security and quarantine support services, have all been executed.  Negotiation with United Airline to bring back the first 50 people have been also confirmed for June 11th.  He added that they were obtaining funds through other sources including grants to fund the repatriation effort.

Preparations to receive the arriving citizens on June 11th in Palau is also underway.  National Emergency Committee with MOH, are preparing quarantine hotel site, equipment, supplies and people to begin the additional 14- day quarantine and testing required for the arriving passengers.

Meanwhile, members of both House and Senate met yesterday afternoon with Palau’s top medical doctors, Dr. Emais Roberts, Dr. Victor Yano and Dr. Stevenson Kuartei, State Speakers, State Governors, Mechesil Belau and Council of Chief to seek their advice and garner support to stop the arrival of the stranded Palauans.

Fear of potential case coming to Palau through its returning citizens is driving the decisions to move to the stop flight on June 11.  Despite 28 days quarantine, 14 in Guam and 14 in Palau and double testing in Guam and in Palau, national and state law makers and many of citizens do not have the confidence that the virus won’t be brought in.   The fear of that slim possibility of virus getting in despite all the screening processes cause these group of leaders to ask the President to stop the arrival.

The leaders seek to meet with President Remengesau today to express their combined response opposing the arrival of the stranded citizens and request that he stop the planned flight.

The three local doctors, Minister of Health Dr. Emais Roberts, Senator Dr. Stevenson Kuartei and Dr. Victor Yano all expressed that Palau does not have resources to handle one single positive case.

Minister of Health Dr. Emais Roberts said they’ve have been preparing since the pandemic was declared, receiving support of funds and supplies from Palau’s friends and partners but he said that should one positive case shows up in Palau, Ministry of Health does not have the capacity to handle it. “We can barely take care of our existing cases, we would be overwhelmed should we get a positive case.”

Palau to date has received in addition to hundreds of thousands of masks, thousands of face shields, surgical gowns, full body suits, and other PPEs, it has also received 2 PRC machines, 5 CPAP machines, 26 ventilators, 5 cardiac monitors, thousands of test kits and medicines but Minister of Health says one positive case, will not only increase the use of the supplies but also, reduces available medical personnel as medical personnel assign to positive case will not be able to see other patients.  As it is now, said Dr. Roberts, they are struggling to care for their regular cases.

Traditional leaders urged the leadership of national congress to meet and discuss the matter with  President and ask him to cancel the flight and wait until “situation improves”.

Asked what he would do if the national congress asks him to stop the flight arrival, Remengesau said that since COVID-19 pandemic was declared 3 months ago, Palau has been following expert advice of CDC and WHO and to date, Palau has no positive COVID-19 case.

Furthermore, he said that as Palau plans to repatriate its’ citizens, it is also following expert advice. “We are confident that we have done what all the experts recommended and we need to make a balance decision and move forward,” stated Remengesau.

Remengesau said he understands the fear people have of the possibility of people bringing the virus into Palau.   He said that is why they are imposing quarantine and testing in Guam before they board the plane and quarantine and testing when they arrive in Palau.  He added that repatriating citizens is also a health issue. “We are rescuing them from a COVID environment and looking out for their best interest.”

“It is not our culture to leave our children outside when there is danger.  It is like leaving your child outside your house and closing the door to them when they ask to come in for safety.  It is not our culture to do this,” expressed Remengesau.

During the leadership meeting at Amayong Cultural Center yesterday with OEK, State and traditional leaders, Bilung Gloria Salii, the leader of Mechesil Belau said that the Palauan citizens outside of Palau were better off outside of Palau.  She said that Guam had better healthcare system and Palauans will be better cared for out there should they get sick.  This message too was mirror by Minister of Health Dr. Emais Roberts.

Remengesau asserted that bringing home our stranded citizens, is our responsibility.  “The responsible thing to do is to make a tough but caring and well thought out strategy with the least minimal risk.  Inaction is just not responsible leadership,” stated Remengesau.