Papua New Guinea's fragile health system pushed to the brink as Covid infections ‘skyrocket'

Asia's Tech News Daily

Health workers – in a country that only had seven doctors per 10,000 people pre-pandemic – are struggling to cope with a surge in cases – Tom Maguire/Results UK

Papua New Guinea is making plans for mass burials as a third wave of Covid-19 rips through the nine million-strong population, pushing its already fragile healthcare system to the brink of collapse.

This week, the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) put out an urgent call for concerted international action, particularly to help overcome staggeringly low vaccination rates caused by difficult mountainous terrain outside the capital, Port Moresby, and rampant misinformation.

As cases surge, only about two per cent of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with less than one per cent fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, health workers – in a country that only had seven doctors per 10,000 people pre-pandemic – are struggling to cope.

“Hospitals are full, and patients are being turned away in Port Moresby and provincial areas. Urgent efforts and further support are needed in healthcare to prevent a massive loss of life in the coming days and weeks,” said Uvenama Rova, the PNG Red Cross Secretary General.

“In all areas of PNG, we are deeply concerned that the risks of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19 are skyrocketing due to limited health infrastructure, high rates of illness, all compounded by poor access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation facilities,” he said.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Mr Rova said that “the rate of Covid-19 infections is creating fear” and stressed there was an urgent need for medical manpower.

Full scale of the crisis obscured

In early October, Port Moresby General hospital revealed 60 per cent of patients arriving with cold or flu symptoms tested positive for the virus, suggesting an alarming silent spread through a community already vulnerable from soaring rates of comorbidities like diabetes and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

A nurse prepares beds for new patients at a makeshift Covid-19 hospital in Port Moresby – ANDREW KUTAN/AFP /AFP

The Pacific country has recorded close to 28,500 cases so far, and is currently seeing some 300 a day, but health professionals have warned that the true scale of the problem has been obscured by low testing rates.

“The ministry of health is calling for retired workers and those who have just come out of training to consider providing their services,” said Mr Rova, adding that the country’s unstable law and order situation was also having an impact on medics’ ability to get to work.

But he added that assistance was also required to tackle rife misinformation and conduct public education campaigns about the vaccine, especially in the remote corners of a mountainous country where just 13 per cent of the population live in urban areas and communicate through a range of more than 800 languages.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, surveys in PNG have found that nearly 80 per cent of people, including some healthcare workers, mistrust Covid-19 vaccines.

“At least somebody should be out there to provide information so that people can make informed decisions about whether to take the vaccination or not,” said Mr Rova.

Reports suggest misinformation is not only fuelling the extreme vaccine hesitancy that denies Papuans of life-saving jabs but also lies behind threats against public health workers.

“Some of our patrol teams have been given death threats,” Mimi Zilliacus, CEO of Australian Doctors International (ADI), said, told ABC news in September. “Threats that blood would be spilled if we brought the vaccines into that community.”

Ms Zilliacus said conspiracy theories were “adapting as fast as the mutations of Covid itself” and driven not only by “a very low-level understanding of biology and science” but also “a background of having a culture around witchcraft and a belief in superstitions.”

A catastrophic combination of mistrust and misinformation

The slow vaccine pick-up has left Papua New Guinea lagging behind Pacific neighbours and facing a potentially catastrophic impact on its public health system.

The country was already battling serious infrastructure and staffing challenges and its maternal, child and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the region, while diseases like malaria and HIV are prevalent.

Australian aid workers have been on the ground for months and this week a small team of specialist medics from the UK’s Emergency Medical Team has arrived to help the country’s National Control Centre for Covid-19 and the National Department for Health.

“Our expert team will be providing critical medical care to patients suffering with Covid-19 and support to health staff, at a time when their national health service has been overwhelmed by the rapid spread of a third wave of the virus,” said Pete Sykes, the team’s leader.

But analysts have suggested PNG’s Covid disaster has been worsened by a crisis in leadership.

Writing in The Conversation, Ian Kemish, a former Australian high commissioner to PNG, pointed to the stark contrast with Melanesian neighbour, Fiji, which was suffering the highest per capita infection rate in the world earlier this year before knocking it on the head with an 80 per cent full vaccination rate.

Health workers use the Meii River to get treatment to more remote communities – Tom Maguire/Results UK

“Fijians have embraced the vaccination rollout almost as one, following the guidance of their medical authorities and falling in line with the firm “no jabs, no job” policy of its prime minister,” he said.

“In PNG, trust in leadership has flagged following decades of frustration with growing wealth inequality and concerns over governance and transparency. Rather than trust official sources, people often look to Facebook and other social media for their information.”

In the nearby Federated States of Micronesia, President David Panuelo also introduced a vaccine mandate for eligible citizens, even though his country is Covid-free and he initially hesitated over civil liberty concerns.

“It’s to protect our citizens. When we see the world’s population decimated, we need not even go there,” he told the Telegraph in a September interview.

“We are going to continue with this mandate until we reach herd immunity and beyond.”

“Our population has different points of views and I think we are coming together now to understand the merits of getting vaccinated and move from Covid-19-free to Covid-19-protected.”

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