WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – Micronesia President David Panuelo said Wednesday he would continue to walk around his island nation without fear despite an alleged death threat against him because of his government’s vaccine mandate.
A month ago, Micronesia was one of the few countries in the world to introduce a general rule that requires all eligible citizens to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Shortly afterwards, Panuelo signed a decree requiring anyone receiving federal funding to show they had been vaccinated or waived their checks. It’s a wide web that covers most of the adult population – everyone from business owners who receive pandemic incentive payments to government employees and retirees who receive social security benefits.
Some islanders have decided against the measure. Last week, a man was charged with threats and other related crimes which, if found guilty, face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
In court documents, prosecutors said the man wrote a Facebook post that read, “Mr. President – My choice, my body … you will need an army to protect you from now on … you will certainly be murdered.” ..Mark my word MR. President.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Panuelo said that since the Facebook post, authorities have increased security around his home and office.
“We are such a friendly country,” said Panuelo. “To see this coming from our country, from our people, is quite a surprising element that I discovered for the first time.”
He said he had promised that his government would remain approachable and transparent during his tenure and he intended to continue.
“I tell my people that I will still go out into the open,” said Panuelo. “Everyone threatens me, I’m not worried.”
Micronesia, which is east of the Philippines and is home to around 100,000 people, has not had any local cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, thanks in part to strict border controls.
“You don’t have to wear a mask. Our children are still going to school, ”said Panuelo. “There is no virus at the moment. We enjoy the daily freedoms like we did before the COVID outbreak. And that’s why we want to keep it that way. “
He said when the country’s Congress first discussed making vaccines mandatory, he raised concerns but later embraced the idea.
“We love our citizens and that is the measure we are taking to protect our citizens,” said Panuelo. “I behave like a father, as I would to my children.”
Panuelo said he believes personal freedoms and freedoms are inviolable, but also that the nation’s constitution gives the nation the power to restrict certain freedoms in situations like a pandemic.
He said that people on the islands tend to live in very close family and community groups, sharing utensils and sleeping together on the ground, and that any outbreak would spread like wildfire.
“I think freedoms are important these days,” said Panuelo. “But how can freedoms be important when you die from it?”
He said vaccination rates had increased to around 60% and 70%, respectively, of around 43% of eligible Micronesians who were fully vaccinated and 52% at least partially vaccinated since the mandate was imposed.
He said he saw some of the backlash to the mandate on social media from people who oppose the vaccines.
James Movick, a restaurant owner, said he was in favor of the vaccine but had concerns about the mandate. He said it would help islanders maintain their virus-free lifestyle, but many Micronesians feared penalties could attack unjustifiably vulnerable groups like retirees.
Movick said he also wondered if the man who posted on Facebook was actually up to something and if an indictment against him was an overreaction.
Authorities are sensitive to such threats after American attorney Rachelle Bergeron, 33, was shot dead outside her home in 2019 as a prosecutor in Micronesia.
Two people were later charged in connection with her murder. Panuelo said he was involved in this case, which has been delayed due to the pandemic.
As in the Bergeron case, the FBI helped investigate the alleged Facebook threat. Micronesia has close ties with the US under a free association agreement.
Panuelo said he doesn’t necessarily believe the charges in the Facebook case were an overreaction after investigations revealed the suspect had made past threats and was involved in other crimes.
He also pointed out that two presidents were assassinated in the nearby island state of Palau in the 1980s.
In court documents, prosecutors said that Benneth Edmund, a retail store owner and assistant clerk, posted the threatening mail under the fictional Facebook profile “Jaylo David”.
A police report said that during an interview, Edmund said he was friends with Jaylo David on Facebook but didn’t know who was behind the profile.
Public defender Nixon Alten, who represents Edmund, told AP that Edmund was released from custody following his arrest and intended to plead not guilty at a hearing later this month. Alten said he could not comment further.
Panuelo said he will further reinforce the message to his people that vaccination is the right decision. He hoped that by December about 95% of the eligible population would be fully vaccinated.
“You just have to look elsewhere to understand why we are doing this because people are dying,” said Panuelo. “And if we don’t do it that way, we could be next.”