For 143 Palau citizens trapped overseas by coronavirus travel restrictions, the journey home, always long, will be especially tortuous. To reach their Pacific island home they face six long weeks of quarantine – two in Guam, two in a hotel in Palau, and then another two weeks of self-isolation at home. They will also face at least five Covid-19 tests.
But some Palauans fear that even these measures will not be enough.
Palau, in the north Pacific, is one of a handful of countries globally with zero cases of coronavirus. Having closed its borders on 22 March, the country has grappled with how to bring home its citizens, trapped abroad, particularly in the US, without importing the virus.
The topic has proven hugely divisive as the government has sought to balance the rights of citizens to return with the need to keep its small population safe.
President Tommy Remengesau Jr is insistent that people should be allowed to return home, and the government plans to repatriate its citizens in three batches, with the first group of 50 already quarantining in Guam. They are scheduled to arrive into Palau on 11 June.
Returning citizens face two weeks of quarantine in a hotel in Guam, then two weeks of quarantine in a hotel under police guard in Palau, before a final two weeks of self-isolation, all while undergoing regular testing.
The policy is a controversial one. Remengesau has split with members of the country’s Congress on the repatriation issue, but last week told lawmakers the government would sponsor the returnees regardless of political opposition, saying the nation had a responsibility to bring its citizens home.
“Fear is always going to be there … but you have to ask the question: what do you do with the citizens in distress? Do you simply say close the door and say ‘You are not allowed into the country?’”
“It boils down to minimising the risk and making a concerted effort, hopefully, supported by everyone in Palau, although we have fear. But I’m not going to kid myself and say I’ll wait until there is no fear in Palau. We may never see that day come.”
Dee Ann Hasinto, 22, has been stranded in the US state of Oregon since the outbreak of the pandemic. She was scheduled to graduate from Oregon University next month, but is now waiting for a flight to bring her back home to her five-year-old daughter.
She lives with her sister, Daemi Ngirmidol, who is pregnant, and said, with Oregon’s high rates of Covid-19, she fears for her life every time she steps out of the house.
“I’m risking my life to go out, where I can get infected any time,” she said. “I will rather be with my family and daughter, rather being stuck here and get infected and die right here alone.”
She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to get a flight to Guam to begin the repatriation process.
Hasinto knows there is opposition in Palau to repatriation and has seen negative comments on social media saying people like her should stay where they are.
“I’m sad. Back home they say that education will lead to success, and the youth of Palau will be the next leaders, that is why we came out here in the first place for education and so we can go back home and help our people. I feel like they are spending a lot of money for us to come to the US, but now they are not spending money on us to come home.”
Not everyone is on board with accepting the stranded Palauans’ return. Several have questioned the president’s decision, arguing it risks the lives of the 18,000 people living in Palau, compared to only 143 nationals stranded overseas.
“I’m totally against it because we are so not ready,” said Patric Martin, a resident of the capital Koror. “We have few nurses and doctors and our equipment are only a few and also no vaccines available.”
“The virus is dangerous, and we need to be patient and learn from this virus”.
Senator Stevenson Kuartei, a medical doctor, said while it’s within the authority of the president to make the call on repatriations there has to be a careful assessment of risk.
“Stranded Palauans can come home safely and has been done with the 10 patients that were repatriated from Taiwan. But that was under a very controlled situation. A meticulously planned and executed strategy must happen that requires quarantining in Guam and Palau with timely testing,” he said.