(Kaselehlie Press) With the novel coronavirus (now officially known as COVID-19) rapidly spreading in many places in the world, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo instituted a strict policy outright banning travel to the FSM from anywhere in mainland China.
He also established travel restrictions for travelers to the FSM requiring them to have spent 14 days in a country or territory that had not had any confirmed cases of the virus.
For FSM travelers, that primarily meant Hawaii or Guam. On the morning of Feb. 12, a committee of Congress held a public hearing on a resolution that had been introduced that would keep the outright ban on travel from China to the FSM in place but lift the quarantine restriction for travelers. It also would extend the Emergency Health Declaration by 60 days. The resolution would also authorize the President to reinstate the quarantine restrictions if the World Health Organization (WHO) provided guidance that led him to believe that he should do so.
A WHO representative provided testimony during the hearing. He reiterated several times that travel bans are not effective as the ONLY tool for the prevention of the spread of the virus but that it could be an effective tool for a government to buy time while readying its response to the virus. Since that time, an anonymously sponsored website has been spreading the message that the WHO says that travel bans are ineffective. That is not the position of WHO either in its testimony at the FSM Congress hearing or in its official policy statements. The WHO representative testified that the WHO does not dictate to countries what their response should be and that every country should decide based on their level of preparedness, the impact on the local economy and a variety of other factors. In that morning’s session Congress passed the resolution.
The new policy was effective immediately on passage and Congress resolutions do not require Presidential approval. However, enforcement is the responsibility of the Executive Branch which was to have notified airlines and others that Congress had lifted certain travel restrictions. It didn’t do so.
In practice, a traveler who had not yet spent 14 days in a country or territory that had not yet had a confirmed case still could not be boarded on an airline that travels to the FSM because no one notified the airlines or enforcement officers at points of entry that the restrictions had been lifted. For the next two and a half days the President met with his Cabinet members and the COVID-19 task force in afternoon and late evening sessions.
On Feb. 14, the President reinstated the 14-day quarantine period for FSM bound travelers. He explained his reasoning to Congress and to the people of the FSM through press releases and letters. The restrictions will remain in place until Feb. 28. In a letter dated February 19 but circulated to the general public on the evening of the 20th, Dr. Livingston A. Taulang, FSM’s Secretary for the Department of Health and Social Affairs sent a letter to WHO Country Liaison Officer, Dr. Euyoung KO explaining the reasons behind the FSM’s prevention efforts in regards to COVID-19 including travel restrictions.
The letter led some to wonder why the WHO, which had already testified that it doesn’t dictate the responses of sovereign countries but only makes recommendations would need an explanation at all. Others wondered if perhaps the WHO had changed its advice.
“The FSM, as a member state of the United Nations in good standing, respects the wishes of the United Nations to submit justifications and explanations for its actions. Although the FSM is sovereign and accountable to its people, the Nation is also accountable to the global community. As the foremost representation of the global community, the WHO asks for justifications for travel restrictions. The justification letter sent to the WHO is in line with the FSM attempting to ensure it is a responsible member of the global community,” the President’s information officer responded.
He said that the letter does not at all indicate any change in recommendations by the WHO. One of the reasons for the reinstatement of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements was to give the FSM time to build infrastructure and capacity to respond to the virus.
That work has been progressing steadily. Infection control training is ongoing in Pohnpei State and trainers are also traveling to the other three FSM States for that same training. Quarantine sites have been identified or are being identified in each of the states.
In Pohnpei, the US Navy Seabees helped to construct a facility on PPA property adjacent to the airport where travelers who manage to slip through the cracks of the travel ban despite government precautions but who show no symptoms can be quarantined. So far that facility has four beds but more rooms and beds are currently being built. If a person in one of the quarantine facilities begins to show symptoms they would then be moved to an isolation ward at one of the hospitals.
While health infrastructure is, as FSM Chief of Staff Leo Falcam testified during the Congress committee hearing the 12th, “suboptimal”, it has definitely progressed beyond the capabilities that were in existence at the time that President Panuelo reinstated the travel restrictions.