Papua New Guinea and the Surge of COVID-19 Cases
Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been experiencing a new surge of COVID-19 cases beginning in February. The most recent report from the National Control Centre for COVID-19, the government body managing the crisis, places the current total cases at 7038 and 61 known deaths. As of the latest situation report jointly published by the National Department of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO), case numbers have risen continuously over eight weeks. As international cooperation improves PNG’s health system’s capacity for testing, reported case numbers are expected to rise. With expected increases, there are concerns on the effects on an already weak healthcare system.
This surge in cases is primarily being driven by community transmission. According to Glen Mola, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of PNG, 10 per cent of pregnant women arrive at the hospital already infected with COVID-19. The severity of transmission of COVID-19 to hospital staff has also increased, leading hospitals to approximately send home 10 midwives and doctors per week. A PNG psychiatric hospital was also recently closed for disinfection after two staff tested positive for the virus. This impact on the healthcare system will undoubtedly have flow-on effects on how PNG deals with the active cases.
In 2019 the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, an organ of WHO , performed an independent review of the health system in PNG. The report outlines exacerbating factors to the severity of the current crisis such as: outbreaks of tuberculosis, persistent issues with malaria, and PNG’s high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Current physical infrastructure in PNG has also contributed to the severity of COVID-19 cases and the ability of the healthcare system to respond. In particular, PNG has some of the lowest medical staff to population ratios in the region, and the bulk of its staff are concentrated in urban areas leaving the rural-living majority without sufficient access to medical professionals. Rural populations rely on aid posts for their primary care, facilities that are less equipped compared to urban hospitals. The report highlights that aid posts face difficulties related to sanitation, power supply, and accessing clean water. It is important to note that there are only 22 hospitals in the country, one for every province capital. Furthermore, PNG has limited road infrastructure and no railroads, which greatly inhibits the ability for rural people to access hospitals and for medical supplies to be sent to rural areas.
In addition, communicating health information in PNG presents itself as a challenge because it is a linguistically diverse country, having more than 800 spoken languages. The low adult literacy rate of 63.4% and strong cultural traditions that can create scepticism in modern medicine also make it challenging to curb further community transmission. With the increasing rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, the difficulties in communication intensify the challenges that health providers face in PNG.
In response to the increased cases, the Australian Government revealed in a joint media release its commitment to the immediate provision of aid in the form of 8,000 AstraZeneca vaccines and deploying three AUSMAT medical specialists to work with local health authorities to manage the treatment and containment of COVID-19 in PNG. In addition to this immediate response, Australia also pledged targeted support through the provision of essential PPE equipment, funding to reopen testing facilities, and supporting the National Control Centre for COVID-19. This support for PNG also saw Australia expand its regional response to COVID-19 by granting another $144.7 million to its regional vaccine access initiative.
The crisis in PNG has increased the urgency of vaccine access to the nation as part of its recovery plan. In February, China offered 200,000 doses of its Sinophram vaccine for its citizens in the country; however, the offer has yet to be accepted by PNG’s government. The Quad Leaders Meeting, an informal summit of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, saw member countries committing to a robust regional strategy to boost the vaccine supply in the Indo-Pacific, by empowering Indian vaccine manufacturing. New Delhi has promised 70,000 vaccines to Port Moresby since this announcement, although the delivery may be delayed due to domestic demand. Canberra is also in talks with the European Union to free the one million vaccines held in Italy that were manufactured for Australia to be gifted to PNG. Outside regional and bilateral responses, PNG expects to acquire 588,000 doses of AstraZeneca through COVAX, a WHO initiative, before the end of June 2021. According to PNG Health Minister Jelta Wong, this international support is integral to achieving the Government’s vaccination roll out and curbing a future surge.
Declan Hourd is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of NSW. He is interested in exploring the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and what that means for the people who live there.