Papua New Guinea (PNG) is facing an exponential increase in the spread of COVID-19, with country-wide reports of community transmission and large numbers of hospital workers and patients being diagnosed with the virus.
PNG’s Joint Agency Task Force reported 1,741 cases and 21 deaths as of March 9 – nearly double the number of cases reported one month earlier and more than double the deaths reported two weeks earlier.
Experts worry the numbers are just the tip of the iceberg because PNG has the sixth-lowest COVID-19 testing rate in the world. Only 5,240 per million people in the country have been tested compared with 41,303 per million in neighbouring Indonesia and 575,063 per million in Australia.
The Pacific nation’s capital Port Moresby is at the epicentre of the outbreak, where already severely under-resourced hospitals are being overwhelmed by patients with symptoms of the illness.
“To say the health system is under strain is an understatement,” Matt Cannon, the CEO of St John Ambulance PNG, told Al Jazeera. “Hospitals are facing a significant inability to cope not only with COVID-19 patients but with all other health conditions people seek help for.
“At Port Moresby General there are only six intensive care beds and no isolation ward so the emergency ward is almost full with moderate to severe cases of COVID-19. Some patients are lying on the floor because they can’t get beds and that poses a real threat to St John’s Ambulance staff,” Cannon said.
“What is also concerning is the number of hospital staff infected. I’ve heard up to 70 now have COVID-19, which represents a significant percentage of the hospital’s workforce.”
Cannon says the pandemic was being exacerbated by conspiracy theories that along with a belief in sorcery and other superstitions are a fact of life in PNG.
“There was a theory going around that Melanesians are immune to COVID-19 but that is rapidly losing traction because many of the disbelievers have caught the virus,” he said. “One of the things we are still struggling with is convincing people who are sick to self-isolate. We have limited information on how many cases there are in the community. But it is clear to us that there is a segment of the population who are showing symptoms and are refusing to stay at home.”
Gary Juffa, governor of Oro Province, says some officials are encouraging disbelief in COVID-19.
“The majority of parliamentarians are taking the pandemic seriously and I know the prime minister is very concerned,” he said. “But I can tell you from my observations that the general population don’t think it’s real and one of the reasons for that is there are people in positions of responsibility who are going around saying the virus is not real, that vaccines are no good.”
He adds: “I’ve had COVID and I lost three friends to COVID. They were educated people who were reasonably well-off with access to health care. They tested positive and did nothing about it and now they’re all dead.”
The source of PNG’s second wave has not been identified, although some believe it could have come across the border from neighbouring West Papua, a province of Indonesia, the country battling the Asia Pacific’s largest coronavirus outbreak.
“Our manager at Lake Murray Lodge has been working with the medical officer to create awareness about COVID-19,” said Bob Bates, CEO of Trans Niugini Tours, a tour company operating in Western Province, a remote part of the country that shares a porous and unmarked border with West Papua. “But from what I’ve heard all the cases there relate to the fly-in, fly-out people from the Ok Tedi mine.”
Cairns Hospital, one of the largest healthcare facilities in northern Australia, declared a “code yellow” emergency this week following the arrival of six travellers who had been in quarantine after flying in from the Ok Tedi gold mine and were confirmed to have the coronavirus.
“There has always been a fear about a spread from Western Province, but the number of cases there are small and associated with Ok Tedi,” said Stephen Howes, a professor of economics at the Australian National University and an expert on PNG.
“It’s more likely that the source of this second wave are international visitors. You see, for a long time the pandemic wasn’t bad in PNG and the government got quite slack with quarantine. Arriving passengers were told to quarantine at a list of specific hotels but no one checked they were actually going there. Now the entire country is paying the price.”
The rejection of COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) is also thought to be contributing to the spread of the second wave in PNG.
“Last year during the lockdown the main market closed for a month,” said Peter Boyd, a New Zealand national living in Lae, PNG’s second-largest city. “But now there are 5,000 people outside the market every morning with no masks or social distancing and that place is a breeding ground for disease. I think the politicians here are more worried about people losing money even though Lae’s about to explode with COVID-19.”
WHO has also raised concerns that a funeral for PNG’s first leader, Prime Minister Michael Somare, due to take place this weekend in the northern coast city of Wewak, will become a super-spreader event.
“Maintaining the six healthy behaviours during the whole mourning period and beyond will be important to prevent transmission. To protect themselves and others, it is important for mourners to remember physical distancing, wear a mask and avoid crowds,” Dr Luo Dapeng, the WHO’s representative in Papua New Guinea, said in a statement.
“In Oro Province, we are taking very stringent measures and planning a massive awareness campaign to stop crowds from gathering,” Governor Juffa told Al Jazeera. “But 100,000 are going to Wewak for the funeral and they’re all totally oblivious to what I would say is a ticking time bomb. All the doctors there are saying they are going to have a serious problem with an outbreak. I personally feel a lot more needs to be done to stop so many people from gathering. It’s really quite frightening.”
PNG is part of COVAX, the global vaccine access initiative, which will distribute the AstraZeneca vaccine in the country. But the first shipment of 270,000 doses donated by Australia and India are not scheduled to arrive until April. The St John’s Ambulance chief Cannon says that could be too little, too late.
“To say we are now at the tipping point is incorrect,” he says. “We were at the tipping point three weeks ago, and that is something that should be of great concern to the region.”