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COVID-19 cases surge as Papua New Guinea waits for vaccines

‘There is a major epidemic in the community.’

A woman washes clothes on a wooden boardwalk in-between two rows of stilt houses
Nearly half of Papua New Guinea’s coronavirus cases are in the capital, Port Moresby. Here, a woman washes clothes on a wooden path in the city’s harbour in November 2018. (David Gray/REUTERS)

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Papua New Guinea is imposing nationwide lockdowns as surging coronavirus cases threaten to overwhelm a meagre health system, while vaccine imports are still weeks away.

The Pacific nation has recorded dozens of new daily infections through March, more than doubling its total COVID-19 caseload in the last month. Papua New Guinea’s health department announced it would begin “nationwide isolation” this week.

“Everyone has a responsibility to look after themselves by following the health measures,” said the head of the country’s COVID-19 response, David Manning.

The virus has now been reported in 19 of the country’s 22 provinces or regions. Nearly half the cases are concentrated in the capital, Port Moresby, where hospitals are reportedly turning away new admissions.

Half of pregnant women sent to hospitals in Port Moresby are testing positive for the virus, Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, told reporters on Wednesday. Australia is Papua New Guinea’s largest aid donor.

“We’re seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with COVID-19,” Kelly said. “These are all signs that there is a major epidemic in the community.”

Papua New Guinea’s total caseload – nearly 2,500 as of 17 March – is small compared to most countries. But the country’s health system is “woefully inadequate” to handle the pandemic, rights groups say, and inadequate testing and reporting systems mean the official numbers are likely to be underestimated. The World Health Organization says test positivity rates – the proportion of tests that come back positive – are at least 30 percent in some areas. The WHO considers rates above 20 percent over a two-week period to indicate its highest level of “community transmission”.

On Wednesday, Australia announced it would donate 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and dispatch an emergency medical team usually deployed during disasters. The doses will target some of PNG’s 4,500 frontline health staff. It’s also asking the EU for access to one million doses of the vaccine to donate to Papua New Guinea – a “country in desperate need of these vaccines”. Italy and the European Commission had previously blocked shipments of 250,000 EU-manufactured doses to Australia, citing inadequate supplies on home soil.

The spiralling outbreak in Papua New Guinea is another sign of the world’s “deeply unequal” vaccine rollout, Amnesty International’s Kate Schuetze said in a statement. 

Ten countries have administered three quarters of global COVID-19 doses, the WHO reports, while the majority are still waiting for their first doses.

Papua New Guinea is scheduled to receive 588,000 doses by mid-year through the UN-backed COVAX scheme, which aims to make vaccines available to all countries. But the first shipments aren’t expected for weeks, and vaccinations wouldn’t begin until the end of April at the earliest, UNICEF said.

It’s unclear how soon Australia’s donation of 8,000 doses will reach Papua New Guinea, though Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, said they should be available before the COVAX supplies arrive.

Until this month, Papua New Guinea had appeared to weather the worst of the pandemic compared to harder-hit nations. But the knock-on effects of COVID-19’s economic crisis have hit families hard. 

A World Bank study last year found 85 percent of families surveyed had cut back on food, sold off crops early, or pulled children out of school in order to cope. Nearly half of farming families were expecting “lower or no income” this year. Gender-based violence has also escalated through the pandemic, and experts say lockdowns and economic pressure multiply these risks.


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