18 Oct 2021
Australia needs to step up as Papua New Guinea is hit by COVID
There’s a tragedy unfolding on our doorstep. Papua New Guinea is experiencing its worst COVID outbreak since March. The Delta variant is rapidly spreading nationwide. Virtually all hospitals are full of COVID patients, in desperate need of oxygen, ventilators and basic drugs. This means other critical health needs are being ignored.
Only 194,962 vaccine doses have been administered in the country, enough to fully vaccinate only 1.2 per cent of the total population of around 8 million. Fiji, by comparison, has fully vaccinated more than 80 per cent of its population.
Even before COVID, PNG’s health system struggled with staffing and supplies. The nation’s maternal, child and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the region. PNG has the world’s lowest vaccination rates for infants for diseases like measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough.
There’s little doubt that PNG has been badly let down by a lack of decisive leadership in the vaccine rollout and public messaging. The number of cases in PNG since the pandemic began has reached 24,041 in the last week. All 266 COVID-related deaths have been people who were not fully vaccinated.
Even though the position is worsening, many of PNG’s people are more frightened of the vaccine than they are of the virus: some local surveys report nearly 80 per cent of people mistrust the vaccines. Many also mistrust the political elites who urge vaccination. A Bank of Papua New Guinea official recently revealed that only about 30 of his 200 educated colleagues had taken up the offer to get vaccinated.
A vaccine launch in the Southern Highlands a few months ago was disrupted by crowds demanding information. The PNG Post Courier quoted a frustrated local: “First we talked about HIV-AIDS, and then came TB and polio and now COVID-19 – this is confusing for us simple villagers. So we need more information on the disease, the side effects, how long it will protect us when we get the jabs.”
Conspiracies have spread via Facebook and WhatsApp. Australia’s inconsistent health advice about the AstraZeneca vaccine fuelled widespread fears. PNG recently had to transfer 30,000 doses to Vietnam to prevent wastage when the vaccines neared expiry.
As the PNG government pursues stronger, clearer messaging around the vaccine, radio has huge potential as a public health communication resource, particularly if it leverages the PNG Council of Churches, as churches run nearly half the nation’s health facilities. Australia should reinstate ABC radio programs to PNG with a dedicated COVID-related channel featuring health experts and PNG public figures.
We have direct security interests at stake in PNG’s Western Province, separated from Australian territory in Torres Strait by less than six kilometres. It leaves COVID and any future mutations only a short boat ride away. Right now, villages in the PNG-Australia shared treaty zone are cut off from Australian deliveries and may be forced to travel to the COVID-ravaged island of Daru for basic food and healthcare supplies. These conditions risk Delta spreading into the Torres Strait.
A health inquiry report tabled by the PNG Parliamentary Committee last year detailed widespread failures in medicine procurement, supply and distribution, including corruption. Australia can’t step in and solve all these systemic problems. But there’s no doubt we’ll be called on to provide further help for PNG’s healthcare system.
In July, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, officially opened parts of ANGAU Memorial Hospital in Lae after Australian-funded redevelopments. But at that very time, the same hospital was experiencing persistent drug shortages, resulting in patients being sent away to buy their own dressings and drugs from external pharmacies.
The broad societal consequences of COVID may well push PNG’s government to create a dedicated ministry portfolio to co-ordinate the national response. It did that for the HIV-AIDS epidemic. If this happens, Australia should support a new portfolio by financing human resources, including seconding our health experts to assist.
Australia has provided more than $340 million in pandemic support to PNG, including vaccines and cash payments to the PNG government. That’s on top of our development assistance amounting to around $600 million this year.
There have been strong calls to have a royal commission into our COVID planning and response. If such an inquiry goes ahead it should also examine how effective and appropriate our help has been to PNG, especially the cash component of our health assistance.
Finally, there are longer-term challenges for PNG’s economic recovery, which is first contingent on a successful vaccination program. PNG’s economy is in the doldrums due to pandemic conditions that have undermined productivity, crippled tourism and inhibited crucial FIFO work.
Our updated Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme can provide PNG citizens with employment and experience while meeting domestic industry staff shortages. Australia should also be open for skilled PNG workers to develop further training and expertise, particularly in the health sector.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY: THEAGE.COM.AU ON 18 OCT 2021