/ 17 March 2021

Papua New Guinea in the grip of COVID

A coronavirus “catastrophe” has hit our northern neighbour with a wave of infections overwhelming its health system. Papua New Guinea’s PM James Marape says that the surge in cases means that “about one person to 3 or 4” has the virus – aka 2.25-3 million people. With just 55,000 tests administered since the pandemic began until the start of March, the outbreak’s scale has not been nailed down. But whatever the numbers are, Marape says it’s “quite staggering”, and he’s worried that the country “won’t be able to sustain it.” Yesterday, he announced that the nation will be asked to isolate, but it would not be a “stiff lockdown” with the details to be announced today.

Until early this year, PNG had low numbers of reported cases of COVID. Towards the end of January, there had been 850 verified cases since the start of the pandemic and 9 deaths. One proviso: officials from the World Health Organisation noted that low rates of testing in many parts of the country make it hard to know what’s happened across the year in PNG. But what it does know is that new infections took off in February. Add fears about recent ‘superspreader’ events, including the recent memorial services for ‘father of the nation’ Sir Michael Somare, and the situation is urgent. On Monday, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that the state’s officials had helped out with some testing, and 250 out of 500 came back positive. And with PNG “on the doorstep of the Torres Strait and Queensland,” she wanted to know what the Morrison Government is doing to help.

We are. There’s $144 million for a first round of vaccines and $60 million for personal protective equipment, testing, support for health clinics and technical advice. Another 3-person team of health specialists will go to Port Moresby to help with infection control and management of the emergency. On top of that, Foreign Minister Marise Payne yesterday said officials are in contact with the PNG Government and flagged that there will be further announcements of more support. Marape would like fast-tracked vaccines for health workers to “defend them from being exposed to COVID-19” – something Australia is expected to do. That call has been echoed by aid groups who say the situation is “dire”.

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