Nation calls on Australia for help as COVID surges
Poverty, conspiracies and tributes for a dead leader has led to a surge of COVID-19 cases in impoverished Papua New Guinea, prompting an urgent appeal to Australia for emergency help.
PNG, one of the poorest nations in the Pacific, is already in the midst of a crisis with its economy on the verge of collapse but in the last week there has been a dramatic surge in COVID cases to almost double what was seen during the height of the pandemic last July.
Last week three people died and 450 new cases reported with testing and tracing hampered by slow turn around times. PNG has had a total of 14 deaths and 1365 cases including three government ministers.
Flights from PNG to Queensland linked to the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine were suspended after a cluster of five miner arrivals to Cairns tested positive. Moves to increase PNG seasonal workers to the state were also put on hold.
PNG Health Minister Jelta Wong confirmed he was already in early talks with the Australian government for assistance as the surge in COVID cases was now moving region to region, aided by rumours and conspiracies from Australia.
He told News Corp Australia his health services needed help to improve testing facilities in the country including faster turnaround test rates required to put people into isolation and start contact tracing quicker. The facilities, usually used for TB, dengue and malaria, also needed urgent upgrading which would headline talks with his Australian counterparts in the next few days.
He has said COVID testing operations were also being hamstrung by misinformation that the pandemic was a hoax and PNG people had natural immunity.
"We never anticipated something like this to happen and it was not on our radar or forecast and last year we spent most of our time trying to curb COVID-19 from coming into the country … and I think we became complacent which gave an opportunity to these people to start talking against COVID, that it was not true, it was started by Bill Gates and 666 and all this crap.
"I think the same movement in Australia has elements now in Papua New Guinea because the feed they put out are similar to the PNG group is putting out as well. We have this problem too that people think the vaccines and COVID are not real which is really sad because some of these are educated people and they just talk it down."
The offices of Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Pacific Minister Zed Seselja did not comment yesterday but it is understood DFAT has already begun contingency plans for our nearest neighbour.
The PNG surge has also reportedly been exacerbated by riots and looting this week after the death of the "father of the nation" Sir Michael Somare with appeals for calm by authorities so far falling on deaf ears. The founding prime minister's death from cancer has also attracted two weeks of declared mourning including church services and "haus krai" (house of crying) events where social distancing has been a challenge.
The government has also resisted calls to lockdown the National Capital District citing the precarious state of the economy.
"The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn are two equally compelling crises challenging the country. But the impact of an economic meltdown would be more severe than the impact of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea," NCD Governor Powes Parkop said this week.
While hundreds of seasonal workers from East Timor, Tonga and Vanuatu have been allowed into Australia to help pick fruit and veg, PNG's program has been restricted to less than a dozen due to the high level of active COVID cases.
Originally published as Nation calls on Australia for help as COVID surges