12 Jun 2020

Repatriated Palauans arrive today from Guam

9:14 am on 12 June 2020

There may never be a flight to Palau more unpopular than the one scheduled to arrive this morning.

Repatriation flight for Palauans

Repatriation flight for Palauans Photo: The Office of the President of Palau

The United Airlines flight is carrying 47 stranded Palauan residents and students from Guam.

The Palau government is bringing the first batch of stranded Palauans, who prior to boarding, had to undergo two weeks quarantine and two Covid-19 tests in Guam.

When these residents and students land on Palau, they will have to face another two weeks of quarantine in a hotel, another two weeks of self-quarantine at home and three more Covid-19 tests.

Despite assurances by the government and its health officials that it is taking all precautionary measures to bring home stranded Palauans, a big number of people, including members of Congress, are not convinced that the move is safe for its small population of 18,000.

Palauans are braced for the arrival of the passengers, dreading the risk it could impose on Palau- one of the few nations in the world that is 'Covid-free'.

Klamiokl Tulop, a 28-year-old single mom said opening the border to the stranded Palauans opens up fears anew.

"Of course I don't like it, but President made the final say in the matter. Now we are all just waiting in tense anticipation," she said.

"Will there be a potential case? Are we going to have to start practicing quarantining ourselves? But we won't know till after the two weeks quarantine for the ones who have arrived is over."

In a statement on Monday Health Minister, Emais Roberts, said the chartered flight would implement precautionary measures to reduce the risk of infection, including the use of masks, adequate spacing between passengers, and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

"If we take extra precautionary measures to ensure that repatriated residents do not have contact with the rest of the population, and testing indicates that they do not have Covid-19, we reduce the risk of importation and spread, while we bring home our stranded citizens and residents safely," Dr Roberts said.

Tommy Remengesau

President Tommy Remengesau Photo: AFP

President Tommy Remengeau told local reporters on Wednesday that the government was not endangering the lives of people in Palau by bringing home its people.

"The key point here is that we are putting on the airplane people who already have been tested negative. We are not endangering the people of Palau by bringing in people who have not been tested," he said.

He added Palau was not helpless against Covid-19.

"In fact, as a small country with a single primary point of entry, we are uniquely prepared to manage safe travel without importing the coronavirus.

"Our people have been working toward this day for almost three months, around the clock. They are ready, and we are ready," Mr Remengesau said.

"Covid-19 presents real risks, but they are manageable risks," the president said.

"It is time to begin managing them."

He said many countries around the world had implemented repatriation efforts to bring home their residents, and Palau needed to protect its own as well.

"We have taken extra measures to ensure the safe repatriation of our residents."

On, Wednesday Palau repatriated 11 medical referral patients coming in from Taiwan.

This repatriation did not cause much resistance from the community and members of Congress due to Taiwan's track record in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Taiwanese expert trains Palau health workers to enable capacity to do local testing.

Taiwanese expert trains Palau health workers to enable capacity to do local testing. Photo: Palau Ministry of Health

The government planned to repatriate its citizens in three batches.

A government statement said that all passengers would be transported straight to the airports and their contact with others would be minimal and restricted to only airport personnel.

Upon arrival in Palau, the passengers will be met by health screeners, who will ensure hand hygiene and use of masks are implemented before they screen them for any symptoms of illness.

The government said after being screened, they would be escorted by security through immigration, baggage claim, and customs before they were transported by buses straight to the hotel.

"All workers have been trained in infection control measures and will be wearing protective gear."

A former health minister and medical practitioner, Victor Yano, said the protocols put in place by Palau far exceeded the Center For Disease Control guidelines.

"It even exceeds the guidelines that [the] Cook Islands has implemented to repatriate their citizens."

Dr Yano's advice was sought by the government.

"We don't want one Covid-19, because one Covid case can infect many. So we do whatever we can to reduce that risk.

"So, I am very confident that the health authorities have done what they could to prepare for the inbound passengers."