2021 was an extraordinary year, a year that tested Palau’s resiliency and adaptability to change. And perhaps no other time in our recent history has so many drastic changes come together in one year than what was experienced in 2021.
As earlier mentioned, the year 2021 began amid a world pandemic. Any hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic would quickly dissipate as we saw during the SARS pandemic were dashed as we entered 2021, 10 months into the pandemic.
Furthermore, a new government took office with the promise to bring change. And year 2021 marked one change after another, putting to the test people’s resilience and adaptability.
Interspersed between the changes, life continued at some semblance of normalcy.
By mid-July, Palau had reached over 70% of all adults fully vaccinated and by September adolescents (ages 12 to 17) have started receiving the vaccine. Palau experienced its first positive case of COVID and the Ministry of Health started testing for COVID at the airport.
More positive cases of COVID-19 were identified as travel-related cases and President Whipps assures the nation that Palau was protected and that its safety systems work as demonstrated in these cases being captured, identified, isolated, and addressed.
Palau accepted and added to the list of approved COVID vaccines, Taiwan’s home-grown COVID-19 vaccine Medigen
Taiwan-Palau travel bubble was objected to by OEK but it continued the flights. Despite the travel bubble, the tourism recovery still was a far-off dream in mid-2021.
Dr. Dale Jenkins, a retired educator was nominated to head the Ministry of Education. He failed the first vote of the Senate by one vote, but under reconsideration, he was approved as Minister of Education. He started with plans to change the school education cycle, from 9 months of school to a year-round school system. He removed quarterly testing and moved specialists to the classroom and started breakfast in schools.
Pension Plan announces its resolution to increase employees’ contributions to remain solvent and OEK voided the Board resolution, promising to subsidize their shortfall once again.
President Whipps nominated Illana Seid as Palau’s Permanent UN Representative and Gustav Aitaro as the Minister of State.
Former Angaur Governor Ngirutang pled guilty to charges of misdemeanors and was ordered to pay $72.9K to Angaur State. Angaur Speaker Gulibert pled guilty to 3 misdemeanors and 1 felony count. He was sentenced to 6 months in prison and to pay restitution.
Airai State administrative officer was charged for misconduct in office and among other charges. Ngaraard Governor Benjamin Iskawa was pled guilty to 2 felony charges and 3 misdemeanors. His sentencing is scheduled for January 10, 2022.
Koror State bill that became law by legislative override mandated a gubernatorial primary election to take place in September. Five candidates filed their nominations, incumbent Governor Franco Gibbons, Speaker Alan Marbou, former Governor Yoshitaka Adachi, former Speaker Eyos Rudimch, and Legislator Jennifer Sugiyama.
Eyos Rudimch and Alan Marbou won the gubernatorial primary and went on to the general election ballot of Koror State in the November election. After the November election, Eyos Rudimch won the seat for Governor over Alan Marbou by 160 votes.
Koror State Legislator and former law enforcement officer Mr. Francisco resigned from his position as a legislator after he was convicted of a drug possession charge
Sharp Sakuma wins Ngaraard gubernatorial race as a write-in candidate. He went on to the ballot at the Ngaraard General Election and won the race for governor over incumbent Ngaraard State Governor Benjamin Iskawa.
President Whipps removed two Board members of the Palau Public Land Authority over a difference of opinion on a policy decision made by the Board in 2019. President’s decision was questioned by the Senate but it was not challenged. Two new nominees appointed to PPLA were approved by the Senate. The move consolidated the President’s powers over all government boards.
Palau adapts the VAT tax system. Education on the proposed tax reform bill, the Palau Goods & Services Tax System, a VAT type tax system made a round of the country with exception of the southwest island states. The bill was so voluminous and complex that trying to educate the public on its merits and impact was challenging. After 40 years of operating under a simple Gross Receipt Tax system, a new tax system was enacted. President Whipps signed the bill into law in September before the Mechesil Belau conference attendees.
Ministry of Community & Cultural Affairs (MCCA) was dismantled and the Bureau of Arts and Culture was moved to the new Ministry of Human Resources, Culture, Tourism and Development (HRCTD). Bureau of Tourism was taken from the former Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism (MNRET) and moved to HRCTC. Economic Development Division was moved from the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, Industries and Commerce (MPIIC) to HRCTD. Parks & Recreations was moved from former MCCA to now Ministry of Infrastructure and Industries(MPII). Division of Aging was moved to the Ministry of Health and Human Services (MHHS) former MOH. Division of Gender was moved from former MCCA to Ministry of State. Division of Immigration was moved from Ministry of Justice to Ministry of Finance while Public Services System was moved from Finance to HRCTC.
President Whipps reorganized the Ministry of Justice, creating one bureau of Public Safety and placing all divisions underneath the Director of Bureau of Public Safety. This was the last Ministry to be re-organized.
Palau prepared and sent a large delegation to COP 26 in Glasgow, UK. Palau made a splash with President Whipps using doom’s day rhetoric to bring home the message of the impact of climate change on small island countries’ survival. “You might as well bomb us” was aired across tv screens around the world.
After 3 years of service in Palau, Taiwan’s Ambassador to Palau Wallace Chow was set to return home for his next assignment. His work in Palau was recognized by Palauan leaders as positive not only to Taiwan but to Palau as well and feasts and accolades and gifts were presented to him and his family. Palau Congress issued a Joint Resolution honoring his contributions to Palau.
CROSS ACT was again extended until March of 2022 and WIOA received an additional 18 million to address those whose applications were rejected during the initial application process at the WIOA for the US pandemic unemployment assistance.
Push to find other sources of revenue and to regenerate the economy, OEK put forth some old and some new ideas including a proposal to re-open PNMS. The idea continued to be opposed by members of the community including the Palau Council of Chiefs.
President Whipps after returning from COP 26, signed an MOU with RIPPLE company to explore stable coin and national digital currency and its related services. Whipps introduced the Digital Residency Identification bill. Digital Residency bill died in the Senate but was later recalled and adopted with changes. It was signed into law in December 2021.
And while Palau struggles to see a way forward in this crisis, one of its paramount leaders, High Chief Ibedul Yutaka Gibbons, who had played a strong leadership role during Palau’s turbulent times as well as peaceful time, passed away in Taiwan while there on medical referral.
Despite such loss, the year ended with the last Ministry being filled by Gaafar Uherbelau, the youngest to be nominated and confirmed as Minister of Health and Human Services. By year-end 2021, 95% of the entire Palau population has been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and 30% have received their booster shots, making Palau number 1 in terms of most vaccinated country in the world.
A report from USA Graduate School on Palau’s economic performance in FY 2021 said that the economic impact of COVID on Palau was not as bad as predicted.