When I first arrived in Palau, I was surprised to hear that gout—a form of inflammatory arthritis whose culprit is uric acid, and whose sufferers tend to also have diabetes and kidney disease—was widespread in the community.
I mostly read about gout in my youth from Robert Louis Stevenson novels and the like, so I thought it was like scurvy, something that disappeared in the 18th century. I even went so far as to think gout was an archaic word for diabetes, much like consumption was a pre-medical term for tuberculosis.
I was wrong. Gout still exists. Like diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and cancer, gout is NCD, or non-communicable disease. Such diseases, which cannot spread directly from person to person, are caused by a combination of genetics, poor nutrition, and physical inactivity.
In 2010, over a decade ago, the Pacific Islands Health Officers Association went so far as to declare NCDs a regional health emergency, made all the more complicated by the lack of medical care in general in the islands.
Then came Covid, and the realization that NCDs create comorbidities, which can make Covid deadly.
I mention this because all reports indicate that Covid in the form of community transmission has arrived in the islands, from the Marshall Islands to the Federated States of Micronesia and beyond. I dare say that the islands that are not officially reporting community spread will experience it soon, if in fact they are not already in its grasp.
To this, I have one message to island leaders: You’ve had two and a half years to get ready.
In the early days of the pandemic, most nations attempted to contain it. They closed borders, shut down interactions and required strict quarantines for people arriving within their borders. Some went so far as to force aircraft to turn back.
Turns out, borders are not Ziplock bags; they don’t easily seal. Even if they did, there are other costs to consider, like the economic effects of closing off the movement of people and goods. Which is to say, most of the world realized that they had to move from containment to management. By virtue of their remoteness and small populations, much of Micronesia and other islands were able to follow containment, allowing only the most essential travel. Until now.
Perhaps worse than the pandemic itself has been the economic uncertainty that Covid brought forth, with mass layoffs and entire industries, from healthcare to restaurants, to airlines and beyond, being thrown into the abyss of the unknown.
And within this economic chaos, Palau proposed that children of foreign workers whose income fell below the legally required $15,000 per year would be sent home. A policy that in effect aimed to separate children from parents.
This past month, Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr. put that proposal on hold, as this publication reported. Citing that 1,800 non-Palauans had either lost employment or had significant reductions in wage earnings due to loss of hours worked, President Whipps affirmed his government’s support to families, as well as Palau’s obligations under international law to protect human rights and child welfare.
What is repulsive about the very proposal is that Palau, like much of the rest of the region, owes its economic life, in fact its entire nationhood, to foreign labor.
Despite the sheer sinister nature of the proposal, I do applaud Whipps for this action. It’s about time that, as the head of state of a sovereign nation, he is showing that, despite his extensive travel, that sovereignty means more than attending UN conferences and accepting foreign funding. With glory and title come obligations.
I’m not picking on any particular republic. Last year I posed a question on an East-West Center webinar: If a country, such as Palau, and it is not alone, receives foreign funds for economic development, then hires a predominantly foreign-born workforce, is there perhaps a mismatch of policy?
I reserve my true contempt for the international community. While there was apparent criticism leveled at the Palau Division of Labor, as an observer of international media, I cannot help but notice the lack of public outcry from global civil society, the same global civil society that rightly criticized the Trump administration for its proposed treatment of separating children from parents.
I noticed nothing from the U.S. Embassy in Palau, the U.S. State Department, or, more suspiciously, the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, or UN body for that matter, or the legion of Non-Governmental Organizations that purportedly care about safe migration, the welfare of children, family unification, or human rights in general.
They may have said so privately but playing on a global stage requires a global response.
While I wish that the presidential directive mooted this particular point right now, for nations to depend on foreign largesse and foreign bodies for their existence, and seek to expel that same foreign-ness while the international community stands by silently, is without a doubt a mismatch of policy.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.