The Pacific Air Force Command has announced that the U.S. and Japan are set to kick off Operation Christmas Drop 2020 from Andersen Air Force Base on Dec. 5, but the Federated States of Micronesia will ask the U.S. government to skip its four states due to Covid-19 concerns.
Richard Clark, spokesman for the Office of the FSM President, said a diplomatic note will be sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pohnpei on Tuesday to ask for the cancellation of the humanitarian airdrop for Micronesia.
Clark said the request for the military mission's cancellation initially came from Yap. "They sent a letter to the national government asking if they could not engage in any operation this year. The national government then reached out to other states and they also asked if we can cancel the Operation Christmas Drop this year," he said.
FSM, which has adopted strict preventive measures, is one of the few countries in the world that remain coronavirus-free and marked "low risk" by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Its borders remain closed until Jan. 31, 2021, according to a press release from the FSM government.
In seeking the cancellation of Operation Christmas Drop 2020, Clark said officials from the four states have raised concerns about the Covid-19 outbreak in the Republic of Marshall Islands involving military personnel. Marshall Islands lost its coronavirus-free status after two service members at the U.S. military base on Kwajalein Atoll tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving from Hawaii.
Clark said the official request for the humanitarian airlift's cancellation in FSM will be officially announced Tuesday.
On Nov. 26, Yap Gov. Henry Falan wrote to FSM Foreign Affairs Secretary Kandhi Elieisar seeking to scrap the Operation Christmas Drop in his state based on the Council of Tamol's recommendation.
In a press release, U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Craig-Gray, chief flight surgeon, said the military is "taking deliberate steps to mitigate the spread of Covid-19" during the Operation Christmas Drop by following CDC's guidelines and implementing approved sanitation measures for all donations.
Despite the pandemic, the air force command said airmen from both the U.S. Air Force and JASDF "worked hard to make this year a success" by implementing strict measures to mitigate the transmission of Covid-19.
“Socially-distanced teams wearing recommended protective gear on shift work will prepare the donations in bundles which will all be disinfected prior to delivery across the islands. Every effort is being made to keep all participants and recipients involved safe and healthy so we can continue to carry out this amazing tradition of humanitarian assistance,” Craig-Gray said.
“I understand that extensive Covid-19 mitigation protocol measures will be followed for all these needed and valuable gifts from our friends in Guam and the United States, but our people are fearful of the risk of introducing Covid-19 into our tiny islands,” Falan wrote, noting his reluctance in breaking "a special tradition that we cherish so much."
Yap has port of entry guidelines in place for all incoming air and sea cargo, but it only applies to the main island of Yap where, upon arrival, shipments are put into quarantine for four days and sanitized before being released. The neighboring islands do not have quarantine facilities and other means to ensure the safety of arriving freight.
Begun in 1952 in Kapingamarangi Atoll, an outer island of Pohnpei, the U.S. Air Force’s annual mission is the longest-running U.S. Department of Defense mission in full operation, and the longest-running humanitarian airlift in the world, bringing boxes of food, toys, medicines, and clothes to the people living in FSM’s outer islands.
Operation Christmas Drop is also conducted annually in the CNMI, Palau and Marshall Islands.
“Operation Christmas Drop is a once in a lifetime training opportunity for any, and all, that participate,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Joseph Spitz, 36th Airlift Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan assistant director of Operations and OCD 20 mission commander. “For nearly 70 years, we have been working in concert with a wide variety of Pacific units to execute this mission; it is truly a testament to our commitment in the Indo-Pacific Region.
“Since this operation started, at least a million pounds of charitable goods have been donated to the islanders of Micronesia and Palau; we look forward to carrying on this tradition in its 69th year and will look to continue it for many, many years to come,” Spitz added.