'As long as necessary': Coronavirus holdout Palau opts for self-isolation

(Reuters) - The Pacific island nation of Palau is one of the world’s last countries still free of the coronavirus, and it’s doing all it can to stay that way.

Palau's President Tommy Remengesau sits inside his office during a video conference in Koror, Palau, April 15, 2020. Palau's Presidential Office/Handout via REUTERS

As the contagion closes in and outbreaks grow in surrounding nations, President Tommy Remengesau has taken the bold step of shutting off his tourism-dependent nation, and is ready to keep it shut until the rest of the world is over the worst.

As he prepares his 20,000 people for economic losses going into next year, Remengesau says the remote country of 200 pristine islands and reefs knows pre-emptive measures are its only option.

“It became a question of economics or people’s lives,” he told Reuters in a video interview on Wednesday.

“Profits come and go. But you only have one life to live and that’s the basic model we’ve been following ... That’s why, as of today, no single virus (case) has been detected.”

Tourism losses could cost the government 60% of tax revenue, Remengesau added, but he vowed to keep the borders closed “as long as necessary”.

Located about 1,000 km to 1,500 km (621 miles to 932 miles) from the nearest outbreaks in neighbours Indonesia, Philippines and the U.S. territory of Guam, Palau declared a health emergency about a month ago to ensure a window of readiness.

Although both its suspected cases proved negative, they gave Remengesau sleepless nights, fearing an outbreak could overwhelm fragile health services.

The government has delved into reserves to beef up the services, building in less than a week quarantine facilities, an isolation unit and a virus laboratory that completed its first 31 locally-administered tests on Tuesday, in a first for any Pacific nation.

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Palau has received technical help from Taiwan, a key diplomatic ally Remengesau praised for the handling of its own virus outbreak.

It also bought test kits, ventilators and modern lab equipment from Taiwan using funds from the United States, which administered Palau for five decades until 1994.


The government had to arrange for that equipment to be brought in on a tuna fishing trawler, after commercial charter planes said it was too big to carry.

“It took seven days to get here,” said Remengesau, 64, who has won awards for his radical environmental and marine conservation policies. “Slow is better than nothing at all.”

But the testing capability meant the public was more confident Palau could tackle an outbreak, he said.

Key to that readiness was being able to convince people to follow strict hygiene and social distancing measures, while accepting that school closures and business and economic losses were sacrifices for the greater good, Remengesau said.

“The job gets easier if people respect what needs to be done, if people respect the value of life,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate developed nations had lost lives because virus containment measures were not taken seriously.

“If you don’t respect yourself, you don’t respect your neighbours, and that’s when chaos can ensue.”

Palau was now better prepared and considered itself blessed not to be among the 213 countries and territories gripped by the virus, Remengesau said.

He added: “We are remote, we are small, and therefore, we can handle the problem situation. However, it’s when that one virus gets in. It makes it doubly challenging, doubly chaotic, and we want to continue to avoid that.”

On the other hand, the measures had led to cleaner air and oceans, and the pandemic offered a chance to rethink priorities.

“Maybe we need to do the things that really count,” said Remengesau. “Maybe we know we need to do the things that are important in life.”

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open in an external browser. )

Reporting by Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Clarence Fernandez