Even as many countries around the world are reaching what they hope is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, a new coronavirus tragedy is just starting to unfold on Australia’s doorstep.
Our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, which until recently remained relatively untouched by the virus, has been plunged into a COVID-19 crisis, with knock-on effects reaching our shores.
Port Moresby’s under-resourced hospital is dealing with a growing number of coronavirus patients — including pregnant women — with fewer staff as doctors and nurses become infected.
Additional temporary beds for coronavirus patients are filling up fast with seriously ill patients and health workers are being particularly affected, prompting fears that services may be crippled.
Earlier this week, Cairns Hospital in Far North Queensland declared a “code yellow” emergency after six fly-in-fly-out workers from Papua New Guinea tested positive in hotel quarantine.
Vaccines are on their way and PNG’s government has imposed some strict new social distancing restrictions, including a ban on gatherings with more than 50 people.
But amid the spiralling coronavirus crisis, one of PNG’s most prominent doctors has called for more dramatic action, including cancelling the state funeral of the country’s founding prime minister on Friday.
Some are even calling for Australia to step up its assistance.
‘Potential for a catastrophe’
Only about 1,700 people in PNG have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
But after an uptick in cases at the start of this year, with five in January and 124 in February, the country’s health services have already reported more cases so far in March than in the previous two months combined.
The country recorded 376 new cases between March 1 and 9, according to data from PNG’s COVID-19 National Pandemic Response.
But with testing rates low, the actual number of cases is thought to be much, much higher.
St Johns Ambulance PNG chief executive Matt Cannon said the total number of coronavirus cases for March was forecast to top 800, which would leave an already resource-challenged health system with a “real problem”.
Mr Cannon said all of Port Moresby’s COVID-19 care beds — 16 in the general hospital and 43 in an overflow centre erected in a sports field — were expected to be occupied by Thursday morning.
St Johns was working with the local health authorities to open a second overflow care centre for COVID-19 patients, he added.
The PNG government on Wednesday signed off on the regulatory approval needed for the COVAX facility to bring in the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the first batch was not expected in the country until the end of the month or the start of April.
“Planning is still in process for how that vaccine’s going to be rolled out here and we haven’t seen a high level of actualisation of those plans and really a tangible idea of who is going to be giving out those vaccines,” Mr Cannon said.
Shrinking number of nurses and doctors being asked to do even more
Papua New Guinea’s Nurses Association president Frederick Kebai said about 100 nurses had tested positive for coronavirus so far and called on the government to pay for more staff.
“What they’ve expressed to me is that they are now stressed and burned out because of the lack of manpower,” Mr Kebai said.
“At the same time, they are working around the clock trying to manage COVID patients.”
He said health services might soon falter under the strain, with tragic consequences.
“We would not like to see operations scaled down, or services closed to the public because the moment we do that, we’re going to lose more lives.”
‘We could reach a critical level where we can’t carry on’
Glen Mola, a senior maternity specialist at Port Moresby General Hospital, said the country’s health workers were being hit particularly hard by the virus.
“We’ve lost 10 midwives and doctors from the maternity staff [who have had to go on sick leave] in the last one week,” he said.
“We could reach a critical level where we can’t carry on.
“You can’t run a maternity service where 50 women a day are coming to seek pregnancy, labour and delivery care without staff. This goes without saying.”
Professor Mola, who is also head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of PNG, said about 10 per cent of patients — about five pregnant women a day — were testing positive for the coronavirus.
He said a full lockdown was not feasible in Port Moresby and unlikely to be effective but the government should enact a state of emergency.
That included large traditional “haus krai” gatherings, which are traditional mourning events being held for the late Sir Michael Somare, people congregating in markets and chewing tobacco and betel nut sales.
“I think we have to start taking notice,” he said. “Otherwise there will be chaos, and then everyone will suffer very, very severely.”
Calls for state funeral for Grand Chief to be called off
Professor Mola said Papua New Guinea could not afford to go ahead with the planned state funeral for Sir Michael, who died a fortnight ago, because it would likely be a superspreader event.
PNG’s COVID-19 control centre this week brought in updated COVID-19 measures, including a ban on gatherings of 50 or more people.
However, the state funeral, which is expected to draw large crowds and have people lining the streets of Port Moresby to watch a motorcade, has a special exemption.
Known as the father of the nation, Sir Michael led PNG into independence from Australia in 1975 and was one of the country’s longest-serving politicians, with a career that spanned five decades.
Anna Maalsen, a World Health Organization official in PNG, said the body had been working with the government to ensure a “COVID-safe funeral”, and that safety measures had been implemented at memorial events to date.
While measures are being implemented within organised events, there are concerns about unofficial gatherings, marches and people congregating outside major events like the funeral or burial.
Professor Mola told the ABC that Friday’s mourning event should be called off entirely.
He said the country’s long serving politician would want the funeral to be cancelled because it was in the best interests of the country.
But stopping people from gathering to mourn such a revered leader would be exceptionally difficult.
In an op-ed in The Australian on Thursday, the Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke said the Australian government should immediately send PNG an emergency supply of a coronavirus vaccine.
Mr Pryke said enough doses to vaccinate all of PNG’s doctors and nurses would “barely put a dent” in Australia’s supplies.
He believes, with PNG’s agreement, it could be started within a day.
“The true test of friendship is what you do when the chips are down. The shocking scale of PNG’s COVID-19 outbreak means it needs critical help, right now,” he said.
In a statement, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja said the Australian government was watching the current rise in COVID-19 cases in PNG “closely and with concern”.
“We’re providing significant and targeted support including to operationalise surge plans for testing and clinical care capacity, PPE distribution, logistical support, and technical support to the COVID-19 National Control Centre in PNG,” the statement said.
“We’re also providing extensive financial support, and Australia’s High Commission staff, technical experts, and NGOs are working very closely with the PNG government to support its response.
“Ultimately, PNG’s health security and economic recovery are closely linked to our own and Australia will continue to support PNG on both.”