Australia is expected to ramp up urgent coronavirus assistance to Papua New Guinea as aid groups warn the country is facing a public health catastrophe from a “staggering” increase in cases.
- PNG’s Prime Minister fears the infection rate will soon be “one person to three or four”
- The nation is asking for Australia’s help in expediting vaccines for its doctors and nurses
- Australia has already pledged $144 million to support the first round of COVID-19 vaccines
PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape sounded the alarm on the pandemic on Monday, warning that his nation was approaching an infection rate “of about one person to three or four”.
“The number is quite staggering, if we don’t do [a] corrective response to this, our health system will be clogged and we won’t be able to sustain it,” Mr Marape told journalists in Port Moresby.
The pandemic has already placed enormous strain on PNG’s hospitals and health clinics.
Port Moresby Hospital’s COVID-19 isolation ward is full and additional beds are filling up rapidly, while dozens of medical workers have tested positive.
The pandemic has infected PNG politicians, staff at key national institutions such as the Prime Minister’s Department and Australian diplomatic officials working in the country.
There are also fears that case numbers will spike further in the wake of mass gatherings of mourners commemorating former PNG prime minister Sir Michael Somare, who died a fortnight ago.
One federal government source told the ABC that ministers were “deeply worried” about the situation.
Senior members discussed Australia’s response at a meeting of the Cabinet’s national security committee on Monday evening.
Australia urged to fast-track PNG vaccinations
The federal government has already unveiled a raft of measures to help PNG with the crisis, pledging $144 million to support the first round of COVID-19 vaccines.
In addition, Australia has poured $60 million into boosting personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, increasing testing capacity, boosting funding for health clinics and providing technical advice.
The government will also deploy another team of health specialists to Port Moresby to help local authorities with infection control, triage and emergency management.
But Mr Marape said he had also asked Australian officials for urgent help expediting vaccines for local doctors and nurses working at the front lines of the pandemic.
“While waiting on the bigger supply of vaccines to come in, we need to keep our health workers and defend them from being exposed to COVID-19,” Mr Marape said.
After initial delays, the PNG government signed the regulatory approvals needed to bring in the AstraZeneca vaccine this month, but its first batch under the COVAX facility is not expected to arrive for another couple of weeks.
The call for early vaccines was echoed by aid groups, which are demanding the federal government intensify its efforts to ensure PNG’s health system does not collapse in the coming weeks.
The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) said the government should immediately deploy 20,000 vaccines to Papua New Guinea for frontline health workers and pledge to vaccinate 1 million people in the country by the end of the year.
Mr Purcell said reports of deaths in settlements and hospitals threatening to shut down were “dire”.
“The international community must get behind PNG in their time of need. If ever there was a time to dig deep and ‘step-up’ in the Pacific, it’s now,” he said.
Jonathan Pryke, from the Lowy Institute, said the situation in Papua New Guinea was deeply worrying and “a small AUSMAT team will be nowhere near enough”.
“We are seeing calls from every part of society that an immediate intervention is necessary to, at a minimum, vaccinate healthcare workers immediately,” Mr Pryke said.
“Both governments seem committed to act and aware of the gravity of the situation, but they must act immediately and proportionately to the crisis.”
‘An explosion of COVID’
The Queensland government is also increasingly worried by the growing number of people with COVID-19 arriving in the state and has been pressing the Commonwealth to escalate its response.
There are particularly acute fears the virus could move easily through the Torres Strait into the state’s northern extremities, despite a ban on free travel across the border.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government was in constant contact with PNG and flagged further announcements in the future.
“We are already working on the ground in PNG including to reopen a number of facilities that deal with testing and other health issues,” she said.
“We understand the system is very strained, it is a major focus for the government and we will have more to say on that.”
Opposition Pacific spokesman Pat Conroy said the government had to urgently provide more PPE and rapid-testing kits, as well as vaccinating doctors and nurses in PNG.
“We need frontline health workers, who are suffering high infection rates, and who are obviously one of the key locus for spreading infection, to be vaccinated right now,” he told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
Australia has already helped Papua New Guinea establish additional health facilities in Port Moresby to deal with the rapidly climbing number of patients, including setting up a new field hospital at the Taurama Aquatic Centre run by St John Ambulance.
St John Ambulance chief executive Matt Cannon said they were working to ease the burden on hospitals in the capital.
“The Port Moresby General Hospital and the Rita Flynn field hospital have had periods where they’re at peak capacity, so it’s become incumbent on us to set up a field hospital for managing low acuity, mild patients,” he told the ABC.
The facility is initially set up to manage 120 patients, but MR Cannon said it could expand to hold 300 if necessary.