No one can envy the hard choices that Commonwealth leaders and residents must make in the face of this deadly viral threat and ensuing economic decline but choices must be made.
It is evident that the government cannot meet its financial obligations and cuts must be made. Clearly federally funded programs and salaries should be exempted because we need every dollar circulating in the economy, and the governor’s effort to add more employees under that umbrella is a good move.
Even though every employee is important, there is a hierarchy of needs, and this must be protection of person and property. Under this scenario, health and public safety employees, customs and revenue, border, ports, utilities, correctional facilities and essential personnel from the courts must be funded in full or in part, but the services must be provided uninterrupted to protect the greater public interest.
The longer the virus lingers in our region, the longer the threat remains, the harder it will be for the government to cover essential and emergency services and institutional obligations under our current fiscal condition.
Doctors, nurses and technicians, billing and record keeping must continue unaffected by budget cuts. Arguably, the Commonwealth Health Care Corp. must be given more money to plan for the onslaught of the coronavirus. Experts have concluded that containment is the byword. In this regard, Gov. Torres’ first decision to close air and port traffic to China where the virus first appeared was the correct decision. Football games and campaign activities have been cancelled and schools closed in an effort to contain the virus; even Japan is considering a schedule change for the Olympics.
Several countries have closed borders and cities are in lockdown in an effort to contain the coronavirus, for which there is no medicinal protection yet. Several key questions are critical to ask among ourselves and in government ranks over and over again as the situation is fluid. How many test kits have been allocated to the CNMI and do we have them on-hand? How many isolation rooms does the Commonwealth Health Center have? Which hotels or schools have been identified to accommodate overflow? Do we have enough doctors, nurses, medicines, equipment to handle the spread of the virus in the CNMI? Are the private clinic physicians and staff on-call and are those clinics available to handle the overflow? How many respirators/ventilators does the hospital have and how many are needed? Do we have enough blood on hand and is our access to supply open? Where do our emergency patients go when we’ve reached critical mass and airline flights into and out of the CNMI have been curtailed? Health costs, public safety expenses are likely to be covered by federal emergency funding, not so other expenses so if it becomes a question of where local available monies should be spent, federal funding considerations should be a big deciding factor.
There are conflicting needs in a crisis and many pressures so government officials will be pressed by some business community members to approve a marathon, for example, but it is the government that will have primary responsibility for the community care if the virus should takes hold here. If we are lucky, no harm will come to us but future decisions must weigh the real ability of the CNMI to handle an epidemic against our best wishes for a good outcome. In these conditions, the risk may just outweigh the benefit of having reported 300-plus runners brought in to a community that is so far unaffected by the virus.
The questions of what we as a community will need to do to recover from this combination of horrible events is one we must continue to address so the idea of exploring new business opportunities abroad is a good one—in a few months. Bank of Hawaii has announced a three-month deferral for mortgage and other loans so businesses are stepping up to the challenge and the rest of us are encouraged to do what we can to minimize the impact of this crisis.
Right now it appears that no other emergency declarations are needed but hard decisions will continue to emerge and it is critical that the right choices are made. This letter is intended to engage in a reasonable and more robust conversation about our ability to handle the viral threat given our remote location and the constraints that come with this fact. We’re all in this together. And the public must plan for the worst and hope for the best, and stand together to be of assistance when and if and when the time comes.
Juan S. Tenorio (“Santiago”)
Airport Road, Dandan