Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

COVID-19 cases are growing across Papua New Guinea, where all major hospitals are struggling to cope as the Delta variant spreads across the country.

This has prompted a renewed focus on increasing the country’s vaccination rate, which is the lowest in the Western Pacific.

“We are barely coping with the existing load at the moment. There are increases in all the major centers,” said Dr. Gary Nou, Head of the Emergency Medical Team at the National Control Center for COVID-19.

Local health workers are exhausted and many have been infected. Patients have been forced to lie on the floor of some overcrowded hospitals and vital supplies are running out.

“Patients are lying everywhere. The situation is terrible,” Dr Nou said.

PNG has struggled to enforce measures such as mask wearing and lockdowns, which has prompted many involved in the response to say the country needs to “vaccinate itself” out of the pandemic.

The recent increase in cases has led to an increased demand for the vaccine, but there is still a long way to go.

Less than 2 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated.

‘Our own worst enemy’

People are queuing outside a hospital.
People are queuing at a triage tent outside Port Moresby General Hospital to be tested before visiting the hospital.(Facebook: Port Moresby General Hospital)

After apparently getting rid of the worst of the pandemic, cases in PNG increased in March and April this year. After this increase, the numbers fell again.

Poor test rates and data collection, especially in remote areas, mean that the full extent of the virus spread in PNG will never be known, but hospitals stopped being overwhelmed by cases.

Health authorities continued to warn that there would be a new increase.

Despite that, the complacency put it off. And the Delta variant snuck across the border from Indonesia.

“It is very worrying, we have had many deaths. It is something we thought would never happen in our country,” said Health Minister Jelta Wong.

“We were our own worst enemy, we became complacent, we started listening to people on Facebook.”

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Several regions in the PNG are now struggling with rising cases, with emergency oxygen supplies repeatedly flown into Goroka last month, and Port Moresby General warned it was reaching “crisis point” and services were “tipping over in the event of a collapse”.

This recent rise is the worst the country has seen.

Officially, the country has registered just over 27,000 cases and 335 deaths. But it is probably a major underestimation due to poor testing.

Last week, Port Moresby General had more than 100 people who had died on arrival the hospital. It is planning a mass funeral this week to clear space in the morgue.

While some affected regions have implemented local lockdowns, the governor of Port Moresby has said they are too difficult to enforce and authorities will instead focus on increasing vaccinations.

PNG has so far fully vaccinated 147,800 people, while 223,200 have received one dose. For a country with an estimated population of 9 million people, that equates to 1.6 percent being fully vaccinated.

Vaccinations are currently only available to people over the age of 18, so the number of people eligible for jab is around 4.6 million, meaning that 3 percent of those with access are fully vaccinated.

Port Moresby has the highest vaccination rate, with around 60,000 people fully vaccinated.

More vaccines are being taken into the community

A woman wearing a surgical mask holds a certificate.
Nellie Sere was grateful to be vaccinated in her village instead of having to travel to the nearest town.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Nellie Sere was among the first people in Gaire Village to line up when vaccinations were offered in the village for the first time this month.

“It has been brought to our doorstep. It was a chance for us, for me, to come and take it,” she said.

Gaire is about an hour’s drive from Port Moresby, but bringing the vaccines to the village made all the difference for the 150 people who got the plug on the first day.

“It’s very difficult for some of us to walk in the city because of [bus] fare so some of us can not afford it, “Mrs Sere said.

Like many places in PNG, Gaire does not have a health worker permanently based there and its emergency station does not have a refrigerator, so it was the only option to bring the vaccines in eskies for a day.

In light of the recent rise, the central provincial health authority, which covers Gaire, is now taking vaccines to the villages.

A man with sunglasses has a surgical mask pulled under his chin.
Dr. James Amini says that with only two doctors and no major hospital, the province cannot respond to a major outbreak(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

“When [the pandemic] started, we thought Papua New Guineans are immune to most of the simple flu-like diseases, and so we could resist it, “said CEO Dr. James Amini.

“Unfortunately, this variant is different and it passes much easier and is a little more deadly, so that’s why it’s urgent. I suppose our problem is that we did not recognize the problem quickly and tried to attack it earlier.”

There has been a national push to improve access to vaccines and increase mobile teams.

Prime Minister James Marape has defended the rollout, denying that the slow admission has been a government mistake. He has blamed the lack of coordination between the health authorities of the province, the Ministry of Health and the national COVID control center.

“Vaccines have been available all over the country,” he said.

“In my opinion, vaccines have been rolled out, but people’s reaction to being vaccinated has been slow as I believe our people are not being forced to do things against their will.”

A new vaccine task force has been introduced, and there is now a focus on tailoring roll-outs to the individual areas.

‘We do not think the disease is real’

People line up under trees in front of a table.
People are queuing up to be vaccinated in Waromo Village in West Sepik.(Facebook: Papua New Guinea’s National Ministry of Health)

PNG has struggled with high hesitation and fear since the first vaccines arrived in March.

Widespread conspiracy theories and misinformation being shared online have been blamed; their spread has been helped by a distrust of government and authorities. In some communities, health workers offering the vaccine have even been threatened or attacked.

In April, Facebook announced that it was launching an education campaign in PNG, but it does not appear to have spread much. ABC has asked how many users it was rolled out to and is awaiting a response.

In the predominantly Christian country, religion has also been invoked by some to discourage vaccination, with claims that it is a sign of the devil, or that people should trust God to save them. The PNG Council of Churches has just launched a campaign that throws its support behind the vaccine and encourages people to get the sting.

Amid calls for more vaccine education and awareness, there are still some in the community who doubt that COVID-19 is in PNG.

In Gerehu, a suburb of Port Moresby, a group of residents are gathered around a buai table – a small shop selling a nut that is popularly chewed in PNG.

“We do not believe in it, we do not believe the disease is real,” said one woman.

“We are not thinking of getting [the vaccine]. “

In a country with so many health problems and endemic diseases, there is distrust when you see the world react so quickly to a new disease.

“We know malaria, typhoid and TB, we are being treated for it and are worried about it. We do not know the other disease, including COVID,” said another woman.

In PNG, people are so used to an overburdened and underfunded health system that news of full morgues and crumbling services has not been enough to convince some.

“Even though the government says wash hands and maintain social distance, we have not seen anyone die of COVID-19, no one has died in the market,” said one man.

“The government is funding millions and millions for COVID, but not other diseases.”

There is also fatalism among many politicians in the country, who are instead focusing on the upcoming election in 2022. Many MPs have yet to be vaccinated.

International assistance

PNG currently has the AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Sinopharm vaccines available. International donors, including Australia, have promised to supply as many vaccines as they are required, but they are being dropped into the country to protect against spillage.

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Nearly 12,000 doses of AstraZeneca had to be destroyed after they expired, and another 30,000 were sent to Vietnam to ensure they would be used in a timely manner.

The newly acquired Johnson & Johnson vaccine has proven popular, and as it requires only one dose, it is seen as the most practical option for the country. Health authorities will hope that the popularity continues as the 300,000 doses that have been donated so far expire in December.

With hospitals struggling to respond to the current rise, there are calls for the international community to do more.

A medical team of 10 people from the UK has arrived. Australia also has a small emergency response team on site to assess the situation.

Australia has already provided $ 340 million in assistance to PNG’s coronavirus response.

“We take our responsibility to PNG as a neighbor and friend very seriously, whether it’s cash aid, vaccines, specialist aid, all of these things are on the table,” said Australian Pacific Minister Zed Seselja.

Fourteen Australian Defense Force members were expected to fly this week to assist the PNG Defense Force with its role in responding to the increase, including the provision of vaccinations.

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