It is almost the end of 2020 and Palau has remained one of the handful of countries globally which have not registered a single case since the coronavirus outbreak was designated a pandemic in March.
For Palau’s health Minister Emais Roberts and the frontliners, the secret to success in keeping the virus at bay is thinking ahead, strict quarantine measures and early border closures.
It also helps that Minister Roberts is a practicing surgeon.
"This thing took us all by surprise when it was declared back in March. Thinking back, there were several steps we took even before WHO told us to close our borders."
Roberts said he took the advice back then of a former classmate that works with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). His classmate pointed out that given Palau's isolation, lack of resources and small population, it was best to take proactive measures.
"Thinking about it , Palau is very high risk compared to most of these Pacific nations, we have direct flights from China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, Philippines and Guam. We have multiple entries."
As early as January, Palau closed its borders to flights from mainland China. By March, flights from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Philippines to Palau had stopped, as the virus spread globally.
Once its closest neighbour Guam started experiencing a surge in cases, Palau decided it would not accept flights via that route.
Minister Roberts said while the nation is reliant on tourism to spur its economy, Palau didn't want to wait too long to implement measures to keep the virus out, as he knew keeping the borders open for too long could have had a devastating impact on its people.
"We asked ourselves, sacrifice the economy or the people? We decided that people are more important. We have to secure the people first and then we can always deal with the economy later," Roberts told Islands Business.
While border closures have impacted tourism, construction of infrastructure for the upcoming ‘Our Oceans’ conference in Palau has spurred the economy.
Roberts said from the start, he urged President Tommy Remengesau Jr. to follow science and not politics. Palau also used Taiwan’s tough approach as a model for COVID restrictions.
Minister Roberts said along with Taiwan, the US, Australia, Japan and other foreign partners, the help of the Palau representative in the United Nations was critical in mobilising COVID-19 test kits, supplies and equipment to be flown to Palau via chartered aircraft.
Palau’s Ambassador Olai Uludong said she worked closely with the Ministry of Health and took their cues from Minister Roberts. "We always trust our doctors," she said.
Minister Roberts said other essential frontline workers, including not only health workers but also airport workers and police officers, are the unseen heroes who are keeping Palau safe by serving as gatekeepers despite the health risks.
The Commander of Palau’s Emergency Operation Center- COVID-19 Response Incident, Ritter Udui, said their line of work meant they had been preparing for a pandemic. “We all knew that it would happen one day, we just didn't realise the extent of the pandemic.”
As a result, Palau’s health workers experienced mixed emotions, from being excited, to being anxious, to being scared.
Udui said the National Emergency Committee formed by the government, helped to make sure MOH has also the resources, equipment and facilitates to deal with any COVID-19 cases.
Deputy Incident Commander, Gaafar Uherbelau said at the start of the global outbreak, Palau's priority was to check the borders and catch the virus to avoid community transmission.
Uherbelau said they also sought to ensure the public knew what restrictions were in place, and how those restrictions would impact the community.
He said also while initial responses from the community had not been all positive, the government leadership was instrumental in amplifying the messages of the health sector and keeping the community in the know.
While Palau is still COVID-free, Minister Roberts, Udui and Uherbelau urged the public not to be complacent and to do their part by staying informed and following government guidelines on hand washing and hand sanitising.
The founder of the Pacific Island Food Revolution says the campaign’s work on changing food choices in the Pacific region is “super relevant” in the current global coronavirus pandemic.
“Our project is about nutritional resilience and building your immunity, which if you look at all the COVID concerns and the red flags raised by health experts, it’s around those who are vulnerable to underlying conditions. And we go right to the underlying conditions,” says chef Robert Oliver. “The whole end game for us is about creating resilient and robust local food systems.”
The Pacific Island Food Revolution is most commonly associated with the competitive television contest that pits cooks from Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga against each other. It’s now in its second season, and airs in 14 island nations to six million people per week according to Oliver, plus audiences in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and soon, through the BBC food channel. But it has many other elements, online and on social media, and through radio programs on local stations.
Funding from the program, which amounted to A$7 million for two and a half years, has now run out, and Oliver says they are looking for a new home.
For the whole story, login in to your account or subscribe today
PNG’s Acting Health Secretary has announced another suspected death from COVID-19 in the Nation's Capital.
Dr Paison Dakulala said a 35-year-old health worker died due to respiratory illness as a result of COVID-19 over the weekend. However the man’s relatives say he died from other health issues.
Meanwhile, a first case of COVID-19 was reported in Lae Tuesday. There are 63 confirmed cases in PNG.
"The reality is, that based on reputable modelling, the number of cases in Papua New Guinea is much higher than that which has been recorded” Prime Minister James Marape said. “Based on current numbers, we can expect to see a double in the number of cases every 2 to 3 days.”
The increased number of diagnoses has prompted a 14-day lockdown of Port Moresby which will see schools closed and public transport cease operations, apart from taxi services. Masks will be mandatory in public places, a 10pm-5am curfew is in place and flights into and out of Port Moresby are restricted. There will be a maximum limit of 15 people gathering in public places.
The Business Council of PNG is concerned a prolonged lockdown could see 68% of PNG businesses shut their doors by the end of this year. Council President Nuni Kulu has suggested businesses be allowed to self-regulate to ensure high hygiene standards and social distancing.
PNG’s health system is under immense stress. Port Moresby General Hospital has reorganised its emergency department and essential services, and has made a public appeal for a wide range of supplies including face masks, gloves, fruit and vegetables, bottled water, toilet paper and motor vehicles for staff transportation. Meanwhile the PNG Nurses Association is threatening strike action. It has petitioned the government calling for a change in management at the health department, citing shortages in personal protection equipment (PPE) for front line officers, an absence of standarding operating procedures, and a lack of training and alloances for nurses caring for COVID-19 patients.
Meanwhile Australia is sending up to eight medical specialists to PNG next week to assist with the COVID-19 response.“This forward team will provide immediate on ground assessment to improve laboratory strengthening, case management, infection control, triage and emergency management, and public health,” an Australian government statement said. The United States has donated 40 ventilators to PNG on top of the US$3.5 million provided to the PNG government for the response. China has also donated ventilators and PPE kits to PNG. PPE kits have also been donated by UNICEF, World Bank, Japan Government, Newcrest Mining and others.
Down south, the mayor of Torre Shire in North Queensland says border controls may need to be tightened to stop PNG nationals entering the Torres Strait for emergency health care.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has already said security at the Solomon Islands-Papua New Guinea border remains a top priority.
“As you might already be aware, in previous weeks, we had a case involving two PNG nationals who have crossed the border and came into contact with seven of our locals. All seven individuals have undergone quarantine and their tests have returned negative,” the Solomon Star reports Sogavare as saying.
Sources: Pacnews/NBC NEWS/MOROBE PROVINCIAL HEALTH AUTHORITY/ISLANDS BUSINESS
The Pacific’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to lead to increased scrutiny of health budgets and investments in our region.
However first there are the very pressing questions of how to scale up response in individual countries and territories, best leverage regional expertise and cooperation, maintain public health messaging that is relevant to Pacific communities, and prepare for second and subsequent waves of infection.
When Islands Business first interviewed Sunia Soakai, the Deputy Director, Public Health Division, at the Pacific Community, only five countries had COVID-19 testing capabilities: Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guam and Papua New Guinea. Since then other Pacific locations have come online. Palau has begun random testing with equipment donated by Taiwan. American Samoa is doing limited local testing, while still sending samples to Hawaii. The Northern Marianas has taken delivery of kits from a South Korean manufacturer, and its government aims to test every resident.
The most efficient way of facilitating local testing in our region, says Soakai, is to use custom-made cartridges in machines already in place for TB testing. The joint Incident Management Team of which SPC is a member (see p13) has placed orders for the cartridges and the consumables that go with them.
“No firm date has been set by the manufacturer [for delivery]” Soakai says, “but given that the Pacific is a region that has limited capacity, WHO and UNICEF have provided their support and the manufacturer has agreed to provide priority for the Pacific.”
.....to read more buy your personal copy at