After almost a year of successfully preventing a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19, the Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is currently on the brink of disaster, health experts have warned.
Testing in PNG remains critically low, with just 2,051 tests taken in the first week of March from an estimated population of 9 million people. The World Health Organization found that from that, 17 percent tested positive for COVID-19. Confirmed cases have been reported in 17 of PNG’s 22 provinces.
Since March 7, the last release of a WHO Situation Summary Report, things have only gotten worse. Confirmed cases of the virus have spiked in recent days, with the seven-day average rising to 87 new infections each day. Ninety new cases were reported on March 13.
The severity of the outbreak was realized further after the premier of Australia’s Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, told reporters on Monday that half of the COVID-19 tests from PNG processed by Australia have been positive.
“Out of the 500 tests that our health authorities have done for PNG, 250 have come back positive,” she said. “PNG is on the doorstep of the Torres Strait and Queensland. Given our close proximity to PNG, I do think it is something we need to be very serious about.”
PNG Prime Minister James Marape told journalists earlier this week that the situation is growing out of control with an approaching infection rate “of about one person to three of four,” and that he had asked Australian officials for assistance.
“I put to [Australia] if possibly a smaller supply of vaccines could come in at the very earliest so that the health workers are given the defense in the first instance,” he said. “While waiting on the bigger supply of vaccines to come in, we need to keep our health workers and defend them from being exposed.”
The national and supreme courts, as well as select hospitals, have partially closed as a response to the outbreak. The ABC’s PNG correspondent reported yesterday that about 10 percent of the Port Moresby General Hospital workforce have now tested positive for COVID-19.
According to Professor Glen Mola, head of obstetrics and gynacology at Port Moresby General Hospital, the maternity department of the hospital has suffered even worse, losing up to 30 percent of its workforce.
Mola wrote in the Guardian that despite the hospital being one of the few safe places for women to give birth, “people could soon be dying in the parking lot” and that “we may have to shut our doors.”
“When the general hospital staff reach levels where the emergency department is unable to maintain the service, then its doors will close as well. Then we will have people who have car accidents, knife wounds, TB, typhoid etc. dying in the main car park, or being sent home to their fate,” he wrote. “We need a vaccine urgently, but by the time it reaches us it could be too late to save the health service of Port Moresby.”
The Pacific Friends of Global Health has warned that if health services in PNG are overwhelmed by COVID-19, the treatment of malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis would also collapse.
Australia has suspended all flights between the two countries and announced that it will be sending 8,000 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine supply to PNG next week. Australia has also asked AstraZeneca and European authorities to divert another 1 million doses of Australia’s contracted supply to the country.
Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference this morning that PNG is “our family, they’re our friends, they’re our partners… this is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests.”
“We’ve paid for [the vaccines] and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbor. I think Australians understand that that is one of our responsibilities as an advanced nation. We all know the Kokoda story. They were there for us. We will be there for them,” he said, referencing a critical World War II campaign.
Australia will also send personal protective equipment supplies, including 1 million surgical masks; 100,000 each of protective goggles, gloves, gowns, and bottles of sanitizer; 20,000 face shields; and 200 non-invasive ventilators.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said any numbers coming out of PNG in terms of cases and deaths would be a “major underestimate.”
“From the places that are able to do be doing testing, almost half the samples are positive,” he said. “When people are being admitted into hospitals in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive, we’re seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the frontlines in PNG now coming down with COVID-19…These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community,” he said.