“This is very frightening, to know that you don’t have any medical facilities open, or very limited, and you cannot easily access them because of the restriction,” says Reva, 48, PNG assistant country director of program support for humanitarian non-profit CARE International. “I’m breathless, I can’t explain how difficult it is.”
Papua New Guinea’s outbreak
For almost a year, PNG seemed to handle the outbreak well.
Onlookers and the government were concerned an outbreak in PNG would be disastrous.
For a while, PNG’s measures appeared to work. It took until February this year for the country to reach 1,000 cases. But Covid-19 was likely circulating under the radar, says Justine McMahon, PNG country director for CARE.
“It’s been here for months,” McMahon said. She added that up until a month ago, people were quite ambivalent about the Covid-19 pandemic, but “there’s a growing sense of trepidation everywhere.”
“I’m pretty concerned. The number of people who came together for the period of mourning, if it goes like any other country, it’s just going to spread like anything,” McMahon said.
What’s the situation now?
One year ago, PNG responded aggressively to the threat of Covid. But now cases have surged, restrictions are weak or not enforced, according to McMahon and Reva.
But Reva, who lives in Goroka in PNG’s Eastern Highlands province, estimated Thursday that only “about 20%” of people he sees are wearing masks.
“I am worried for them,” he says of his family. “The national directives have been handed down but the law enforcement is not in place.”
“This is a huge setback, because the country does not have enough health staff to begin with,” said MSF medical manager Farah Hossain, adding that of 86 staff running MSF’s tuberculosis program in the country, 30 had tested positive for Covid-19.
Some hospitals around the country have closed — they may accept maternity or critical emergency cases, but otherwise people are being turned away, McMahon said.
Battle against misinformation
All this is being exacerbated by the spread of misinformation.
Namah said in a statement the government was “exposing citizens to potential serious harm and offering them up as laboratory rats or guinea pigs for further testing of the virus.”
McMahon and Reva say these sentiments are common. Reva says he has heard people say they are afraid of dying if they take the vaccine, and others believe their Christian faith will be enough to protect them from the coronavirus.
McMahon says when she was in Port Moresby three weeks ago, some taxi drivers she spoke to were dismissive. “Because they didn’t see it here, they said ‘no, it doesn’t come here,'” she said. “A lot of people think as well, ‘God will protect us.'”
Prime Minister Marape on Friday appealed to “rumormongers” to stop.
Even so, Reva wants to see a lockdown: “Everywhere, anywhere we go, we don’t feel safe anymore.”
MSF’s Hossain says more can be done. Testing needs to be escalated, health advice promoted and the country needs more vaccines, she said.
And that’s where other countries come in.
PNG is also part of the United Nations COVAX scheme, which aims to give equal vaccine access to all countries.
Throughout the pandemic, both countries have been concerned about the virus spreading in the Pacific. For the most part, Pacific Island countries have avoided a major outbreak — some, including Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu, are yet to report a single case.
McMahon sees other challenges in the future — the difficulty of a vaccine rollout in the country, the possibility people won’t return for the second dose, and the issue of vaccine hesitancy. The crisis is also taking focus and resources away from other major health issues, such as the fight against tuberculosis.
“It’s out of the box now,” said McMahon. “The only thing they can do is have widespread vaccination of the population.”
To Hossain, it’s an unfolding humanitarian crisis.
“(It’s) a fragile health system, and then the medical staff are getting positive, and then you have case numbers piling. So this is like one on top of another. So unless we try to contain it, unless we support the treatment and the testing, it can become a catastrophe.”
Carol Yuan contributed reporting.