The major islands of Micronesia are dealing with the COVID-19 virus in a variety of ways, both for the health and protection of their citizens, and through economic initiatives, some tentative efforts as positive case numbers flatten out, and recoveries increase.
Leading the islands are their presidents and governors, who are weathering a role that has thrust them into the limelight and required immediate decisions.
By Maureen N. Maratita and Bernadette H. Carreon
Crises like the coronavirus pandemic are a challenge to leaders around the globe. For Palau, despite having no confirmed cases, the nation is also bracing for the economic impact.
But in times of crisis, President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. says that people want to see their leaders in action.
He is dealing with an extraordinary situation with his usual outward calm, possibly cemented by his four terms in office.
But Remengesau says the pandemic is a trying time even for small islands nation.
“It does bring out the reality of what you are capable of and what your limitations are, so for small island developing states like Palau, you realize you are really vulnerable; you don’t have the expertise, you don’t have the resources, human and financial, to really deal with this on a large scale,” Remengesau says.
He says that Palau faced the impacts head-on by using common sense, preventive measures and community spirit.
“At the end of the day, I want to be known as a leader that rallied and worked with Palauan residents here to really to do the things that are needed to be done,” Remengesau says.
The president says in a time where people likely feel a whole range of fears, criticism is part of the package, and he welcomes it, especially constructive criticism which he has received a lot during the preparation to respond to the pandemic. Instead of rejecting comments, he uses the criticism to build a better response to the disease.
Remengesau says he knows that Palau is blessed, and he gets his strength to make a decisive response from his family and faith.
Equally positively, he says, Palauans always pull in together as a community in a time of crisis.
“This is a pandemic situation which needs all hands on deck, and needs total community efforts, whether its government, private sector, churches, family, community state leaders, traditional leaders – everybody is coming together, because we are in the same boat and all of us should paddle together,” he says.
The key to decisive action is good communication to make the job implementable, Remengesau says.
He encouraged the public to follow best practices or what he calls ‘the new normal.’
“Hygiene will be a part of people’s daily practices and focus; washing your hands, covering your mouth when you sneeze and coug; making sure you avoid people with fever,” Remengesau says.
The president also says he fosters connections with other leaders in Micronesia and around the world.
He says he has been connecting with leaders in the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru to discuss how they can support one another.
Palau has shored up defenses to keep the virus at bay by closing its borders and is beginning onsite testing with the help of Taiwan.
The government is discouraging mass gatherings and social distancing is the order of the day.
“Every little thing matters in a time like this. The citizens’ contributions have been there; the non -citizens working and living in Palau have been there and NGOs have also stepped up,” he says.
For the economic fallout, he said although Palau has closed its borders, he believes that the local economy can survive.
“We know that we have to close the tourism for now and that it will take to recover,” he says.
The government’s aim for now is to keep employment going for both citizens and non-citizens.
Remengesau says the government will borrow money from international banks to inject into the country’s economy.
“We need to do the best of what is potentially there. But the best interest of our people is foremost in our mind,” he says.
“I have been quoted as saying, ‘Profits come and go but you only live once.’”
David W. Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has the distinction of being one of if not the first leader to close his country’s borders to COVID-19, on Jan. 31.
“By Jan. 29, the government determined that we had to act very, very quickly if we wanted to protect the virus from reaching our shores,” he says. The FSM only had two ventilators and four operational isolation rooms, none of which had negative pressure. “No country that we were aware of had already instituted such a declaration of public health emergency,” Panuelo says. “Maybe it sounded alarm and criticism, but we had to do what is right.” His move required all travelers to the FSM to spend 14 days in either Guam or Hawaii, the inbound and outbound hubs for FSM travelers.
“I had a lot of outcry from citizens,” he says. By Feb. 12, when there was still doubt at how serious the virus was, the FSM Congress said non-travel was burdening its citizens and the economy and by Congressional resolution lifted travel restrictions.
Panuelo met at once with his cabinet. “We spent a long meeting — way into the night — weighing what I should do — even with the WHO sitting next to us,” Panuelo says. “Even the cabinet was split on the issue,” he says. He concluded the issue was one of “human life and the security of knowing that people will die from the disease.” As the nation’s top public servant, he says, “I’m ultimately responsible for what happens within our borders and to our citizens. Opening our borders says it’s okay for some of our people to die.” He reinstated travel restrictions
Since then the FSM has given infection control training, built quarantine and isolation facilities and increased capacity to handle the virus if it comes in.
“We were buying time,” he says.
Medical supplies, ventilators and tests from the U.S., China and the Japanese community in the FSM are due end of April, as well as cash donations, Panuelo says.” Every state will have the ability to test the virus,” he says.
The country has a task force that works with embassies, the U.S. departments of interior and state, as well as United Airlines. The president meets with them regularly. “It’s such a beautiful thing when you see all our country working together, and then partners joining in so that we’re on the same page, helping each other.”
Still he says, “Who can really be prepared for this kind of thing when it reaches your country? It’s worrisome and concerning.”
As to constant Zoom communication, Panuelo says, “We’ve had to do a lot of things that we don’t do, but it’s a good learning curve. It’s economical too, to work by video conferencing.”
He returned to Pohnpei from a postponed trip to Hawaii and Guam on March 18 and immediately entered quarantine for 14 days. “I’m feeling very well now; I feel healthy, no symptoms of any kind, so I’m proceeding with work.”
He works through Zoom to meet with his cabinet and with the state governors.
Work includes a special five-day session of Congress to consider a $20 million health package — $15 million found from the budget, and a $15 million economic stimulus package, due to be approved April 17. The stimulus package is for the private sector, to include the unemployed, to be verified through social security and income tax payments and the president says, “To get them back to work.” Added to that will be most of the $7.7 million that the FSM will receive from the U.S. Department of Labor, Panuelo says. While tourism will be assisted first, other sectors of the economy will then be considered, he says.
Panuelo says that he is managing the situation head on. “It’s a privilege and an experience when you … give your best,” he says. “There’s nothing to fear. I feel wholesome when I am serving our country to the best of my abilities, with the support of many people in leadership…,” he says. FSM citizens are supportive, he says.
As to how history will regard him, he says, “I hope they will say that we took COVID-19 seriously and ultimately … made decisions with the best interests of our citizens at heart.”
One date and what happened on it might be fortuitous for the president’s aims.
Of the five-day Congressional session, he says, “It coincided with my birthday on April 13.” His 85-year old mother celebrated her birthday on April 15. Thinking of his and other families helped the president decide on virus strategy, he says.
As a child, Panuelo admired politicians, writing to the president as a college student. He remembers the FSM flag flying at the president’s residence. “I asked that it be raised at my residence. By pure coincidence it was raised April 13. It flew, and I had this patriotic feeling. …I feel it, and I get goosebumps … ‘”
Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero is the only one of our island leaders who hosts media conferences daily. Conferences typically last an hour, sometimes longer.
“In any crisis situation I think it’s imperative that information be communicated to the public,” she says. “It calms people’s fear down because they’ll be able to know what’s going on.”
Leon Guerrero makes every effort to communicate — from personal Facebook live messages to meetings with the Guam Legislature through Zoom.
The governor also personally keeps in the loop the leaders of the two other branches of government — Legislative Speaker Tina Muna Barnes and Chief Justice F. Philip Carbulido. She gives them updates “personally from me and to provide them news of any kind of issues of great concern, or if we are going to implement a measure … or any kind of decision that I am thinking of making — for example, when I was going to make the decision about the USS Theodore Roosevelt.”
Leon Guerrero participates once a week — early in the Guam day — in National Governors Association meetings. Those can include President Donald Trump, Vice President Michael Pence, cabinet members and heads of federal agencies, like the CDC and FEMA. “They make a presentation, they give us updates, they talk about supplies, they talk about capacity of testing and so forth.” Comments are also received from the governors, she says. In such a meeting, she says, “I had asked Sec. Menuchin [of the treasury] to look at the eligibility of the territories to get $600 a week.”
A second weekly meeting is just for the governors. Both are helpful, she says. “I get up-to-date information and I listen and share also.” Between the governors, discussions are frank, she says.
The community is supportive, she says. As to criticism, the governor says, “I’m not on Facebook. I don’t read Facebook.” In general, she says, “I’m very appreciative of the criticism. I just don’t like the meanness.” Referring to Guam’s culture of respect, she says, “When it gets personal it bothers me, because that’s not how I know my community.”
Leon Guerrero discusses such issues with her husband, first gentleman Jeffrey Cook, and her children. “I also turn to many of our cabinet members. Sometimes at the end of the day you have to meet and debrief and decompress and support each other.”
Decisions are not made lightly, she says, but with advice and input. “At the end of the day, I make the decision. My position has always been, ‘What is best for our community, for our public.’ While that was a major concern with the decision to house TR sailors in the community, the governor also weighed compassion, she says, as well as from “a humanitarian perspective, from an ethical and a moral obligation also.”
Leon Guerrero has been staying close to home or her office and wearing a mask when she is in public — abiding by her own restrictions. “I have a few gray hairs coming out, because I can’t go to my hairdresser, she says.” She has not taken a COVID-19 test but came close to people in what she calls “a scare,” who tested negative.
“I have not seen my grandkids physically; I’ve not seen my children physically. I’ve seen my mother maybe twice — but stayed very far away from her. I wear my mask with her, and I don’t stay very long. It’s hard, especially in a culture where we are so close and very warm and loving to each other.”
When things return to normal even that may take time for her, she says. “I’m going to be very hesitant in shaking people’s hands till we’re assured that things are totally safe.”
As to what the governor hopes that her legacy will be, she says, “I hope that they will write that the first female governor — also a nurse and also experienced in financing — used her skills to protect and save our people from this COVID-19.
“I hope that they would say that she has been very proactive and very aggressive and very clear in measures that she has put forward.” The governor also hopes it will be recognized that her directives and initiatives were implemented on facts and figures, and as a result of that fatalities did not follow a high trajectory.
She does not shy away from the current challenge, Leon Guerrero says. “It’s your call to come up and protect our people. To me that’s a very sacred kind of call; to be the individual that people look to for leadership, direction and strategy. … That is a great responsibility to have and I totally accept that responsibility, and I welcome that responsibility.”
She says every day is different, with different occurrences.
“I have the calmness and the ability to focus in critical and crisis situations. You have to maintain that …. There are times when I feel like I’m not in control … you just regroup and refocus.”
Still, she says, “Some days, I don’t want to think about COVID anymore and I think about other things.”
Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands has dealt with multiple challenges to the NMI economy and a variety of typhoons. But nothing comes close to COVID-19.
What is a plus are his relationships.
“I have a good working relationship with the legislature leadership and our department heads. I have a strong working relationship with Senate President Victor B. Hocog and House Speaker “BJ” T. Attao on a personal level,” the governor says. He meets with the legislature when they request that and brings together stakeholders to address their concerns, he says. “As a leadership, we have the same goals and objectives, and we work very hard to meet those objectives,” Torres says, acknowledging their work to protect the community.
“Within my cabinet, I meet with many of them from each department on a one-to-one basis. Our department heads have stepped up tremendously,” he says.
On a national level, he says, “As governor, it is important for me to foster relationships and not just through emergencies. I have a strong partnership with FEMA Region IX Administrator Bob Fenton, and we talk regularly even during non-disaster times. My relationship with the White House and U.S. INDOPACOM has also been very beneficial in ensuring that the CNMI gets the help it needs.”
Closer to home, he says, “I have a strong relationship with Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, and we speak frequently and regularly. I thank her for helping us by prioritizing our specimens for testing before we got our test kits. Guam also takes care of our medical patients. With COVID-19, we offer each other a helping hand. … That’s what we do as governors and as chief executives. We help each other out as leaders.”
In addition, he says, “President Tommy Remengesau and I also have a strong relationship. He’s a great president and a champion for the environment. He and I have a personal relationship, given his upbringing here on Saipan and connection to our people. He is family to the CNMI.”
Torres communicates frequently with the White House, he says. “I continue to participate in the governors’ briefing with the president and vice president, which are usually early morning calls between 1 a.m. and 6.30 a.m. here on Saipan.” Torres says it comforts him that the president and vice president equally prioritize NMI residents. He believes the relationship will continue to be fostered, he says.
Residents call and communicate with him daily, he says. “And I appreciate their concerns and suggestions. They advise me on how we can better implement our emergency directives. I take their advice seriously, and that factors into my decisions, including how we have prioritized social distancing.” Healthcare professionals have also praised his decisions, he says.
The governor dismisses criticism from detractors and people with political agendas. “I have a mission, a goal and a duty to protect the people of the CNMI and that’s what I will focus on. I have no time for politics, and thankfully, our dedicated first responders and medical workers don’t have time for it either.” He works with anyone who supports stopping the spread of COVID-19 and treating infected patients, he says. … “When I make a decision during this response, it is a collective decision. I know I cannot please everybody, but we will stay focused on our goals and objectives as a commonwealth.”
The sudden loss of tourism income was a blow to the NMI economy. “… It is the foundation for us to create other economic industries. We also need to maximize federal funding from our federal partners, and we are doing that. Post-typhoons construction through FEMA funding continues. “The perpetual problem is that we continue to have manpower issues affected these projects, as well as other hotel and investment projects,” the governor says.
He recognizes the spending power that will come from the CARES Act federal assistance. However Torres say, “The goal remains the revitalization of tourism. I talk to our local businesses here, and we have a strong partnership on how we can do that together.” First the NMI will implement testing, he says “so we can reopen our islands safely.”
As to how to how he might be judged by history, Torres hopes it will be said “that I took bold actions and decisions to protect the safety and well-being of the people of the CNMI during the COVID-19 global pandemic.” The NMI is fortunate that its curve is flat, he says. “The proactive measures we have taken speak to my ability to work well with our legislative leadership and business leaders and foster a good working relationship. I want us to be able to look back and say that we took real action to safeguard our community.”
Torres says his strength comes from “the people and first responders I work with, knowing all the sacrifices they make. … I think about them every day when I go out there with our task force. What also drives me every day is seeing our man’amko and our youth.”
He is happy to see the progress of the COVID-19 response with our field hospital and alternate care site. “That keeps me motivated,” he says. When he has time, he spends it at home with his six children. “We do small farming, fishing, playing basketball, and other sports. The kids know that Dad has a job to do and that is to protect everyone in the CNMI.”
Torres has been tested, he says; fortunately testing negative, but stressing, “A negative test result means that you’re negative today. People can still contract the virus after being tested. This means we need to continue practicing social distancing.
“The reality is we don’t know who is transmitting the virus.”