Republic of Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. acknowledged the assistance of allies in keeping the island nation “COVID free” this past year, while also assisting with the its shift from relief to recovery.
During his first State of the Republic Address, given on April 29, just two days shy of 100 days in office, Whipps noted efforts to reorganize the nation’s executive branch. Palau's elections were held last November and Whipps was sworn into office in January. He spoke heavily of the relationships that were critical this past year.
“We have kept ourselves safe with the help of our great friends. We have relied on expert medical advice from the U.S. and Taiwan centers for disease control, the world’s two foremost experts in pandemic management. We have relied on specialized equipment for testing and treatment from the governments of the United States and Taiwan as well,” Whipps stated. “As the virus sees no border, so should our approach in mitigating it. These partnerships helped us stay safe and healthy.”
Palau’s borders remains closed, for the most part, to general travel. It recently opened what’s dubbed “bubble tourism” with Taiwan. The concept includes levels of health checks and specific travel and visiting arrangements to ensure the safety of both the travelers and the locals.
The western-most island archipelago of Micronesia is one of the few nations that hasn’t had a COVID-19 illness or death. The U.S. and Taiwan have helped Palau by providing test kits, medical equipment and expertise, as well as training.
“Today we are prepared, supplied, and well-trained, and we are shifting from COVID-free to COVID-safe. But all the training, all the precautions, and all the preparedness in the world could only do so much,” Whipps stated. “It could keep us safe, but it could not help us move forward. As we move forward into renewed opportunity, with resumed travel and renewed business activity, we do so thanks to Operation Warp Speed.”
Travel and recovery
The U.S. Operation Warp Speed has provided vaccinations along with the assistance of medical personnel from the Department of Health and Human Services to Palau.
“The assistance from the HHS Team was crucial as they brought relief to our health care workers," he stated. “More importantly, the HHS Team also helped answer many questions about our preparedness as a country and helped us in our shift from COVID-free to COVID-safe to begin opening with care.”
Whipps reported that more than 90% of their adult population has received at least the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. His administration anticipates that by May, the population would have achieved herd immunity with more than 80% with full immunization.
The president shared his pride in the unified effort that has gone into resuming tourism and restarting the nation’s economy.
“With a sterile corridor between Palau and the Republic of China (Taiwan), tourism has been restarted. This was not easy. It was not easy for health professionals, it was not easy for the tourism industry, and frankly, it was not easy for both countries, but we came together, and we took a bold step forward,” he stated.
“The world is watching, and I could not be prouder. Thank you for your trust and your help. This was a step that we could only take together. We are one month into the sterile corridor, and we continue to work with (Taiwan) and the private sector to improve our corridor.”
The island nation is also looking forward to reopening borders to more people. The president noted his administration is working with partners to “reduce quarantine costs, including testing, accommodation, and other associated costs, and easing up quarantine requirements.”
“This attracts more tourists, which in turn is good for our economy and benefits our family members abroad who wish to visit Palau in the near future,” he stated.
Whipps said the ongoing effort to realign executive branch agencies to the needs of the nation is guided by the idea of “A Kot a Rechad er Belau,” or The People of Palau Come First.
“The realignment is intended to improve the government to become better and more people-centered that strives to streamline services, strengthen collaboration with partners to enhance health care, social services, infrastructure, agriculture, education, human resource development, and improve financial accountability through greater transparency.
Some areas of reorganization Whipps mentioned, include:
Ministry of Health and Human Services
• We raised government benefits for the severely disabled, which had been sitting at the same level for many years.
• We also expanded the qualifications for those benefits to include more citizens in need.
• Work has begun to build a new step-down facility for our elderly.
• Realigning our social services under the new Ministry of Health and Human Services, we can better implement a whole-health approach to build healthier communities.
Ministry of Justice
• With the help of Taiwan, the nation is improving their correctional facility.
• Find ways to rehabilitate our incarcerated population so that they may be able to reintegrate back into our society.
• Executive Order 444 reorganized the Ministry of Justice to allow for more streamlined and efficient use of limited resources while ensuring our people’s safety and security.
• Created a Transnational Crime Division that will work with our National Security Coordinator and our partners, including the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and our small island neighbors as well.
Ministry of State
• Establish the a Division of Gender under the Ministry of State.
• Responsible for improving public access to government documents and ensuring that the public remains informed about the work of the government.
• To save money while improving organizational effectiveness and streamlining services, Palau closed the Embassy in Fiji, mission to the European Union in Brussels
Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Industries
The changes here involved “simple, common-sense efficiency improvements such as streamlining of maintenance responsibility for government infrastructure."
• Bid out 30 major infrastructure projects that continue to bring development to Babeldaob. These include road improvement projects, building parks and other recreational facilities to provide family-friendly green spaces, and the Airai-Tebadel Waterline Project that aims to provide clean water access across different areas in Babeldaob.
• Public facilities, including sports venues, and other large public gathering spaces, will now be maintained by this ministry. With support from the Asian Development Bank technical assistance, we are also developing a National Infrastructure Investment Plan, prioritizing timely upgrades and adequate maintenance of existing assets. This is the renamed Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Industries.
Ministry of Education
• Make classrooms attractive for teachers.
• Ensure Ministry of Education is responsible for managing, operating, and promoting public primary, secondary, and tertiary school systems throughout the Republic.