PNG: Coping with COVID

By early June, Papua New Guinea’s COVID-19 cases stood at 15,938 and 15,088 of that number have recovered. There have been 162 deaths, and at the time of reporting, there were 688 active cases. So how is the PNG health system coping with a disease that seemingly just won’t go away.

“There appears to be a slowing of infection rates, with hospitals reporting declining hospitalisation,” Professor William Pomat, Director, Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research has told Islands Business.

“But,” he says, “testing remains low and therefore the real picture of infections cannot be accurately determined.”

Infection among health care workers also affected the health system, and other programs to address TB, HIV, malaria and respiratory illnesses have suffered.

“Reporting of deaths, illnesses in village setting are not well established so the true extend of COVID
rates could be higher than what we are seeing.

“However, as the majority of population is young, they may be asymptomatic and therefore continue to transmit the virus,” he says.

Prof Pomat has had first-hand experience of Covid. A diabetic, he contracted the disease in May and was flown to Port Moresby. While he did not require ventilation, he told NBC PNG reporter Waliagai Olewale that he was worried he might die.

At a screening tent outside the Port Moresby General, one in three people are still testing positive, according to the ABC.

At the start of the pandemic, it was estimated there were 5,000 hospital beds and 500 doctors for the country’s nine million people.

An Australian-funded field hospital has opened at the site of an indoor sports and aquatic centre to treat mild and moderate patients, easing the burden on the Port Moresby General.  St John Ambulance PNG CEO Matt Cannon says has a 270-bed capacity “but that will require more nursing and medical staff.”

Many patients with mild cases in PNG are being allowed to do home isolation.

Misinformation about COVID is a key issue which the Marape government needs to deal with, says Henry Ivarature, Pacific Fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“Awareness exercises should have been intensified from the start, targeting vulnerable populations who are easily persuaded by uninformed groups and individuals,” he told Islands Business.

A national rollout of vaccinations has begun, after PNG received more than 130,000 doses of AstraZeneca.

“Unfortunately, misinformation is also spreading to vaccines,” says Dr Ivarature.

Prof Pomat agrees.

“Continuing advocacy around vaccination to dispel myths and misinformation of COVID and vaccination (is needed).

“We should try to vaccinate all essential workers and as many of everyone else as possible to stem the possibility of next wave, which could be more infectious.”

Dr Ivarature also criticises the government for relaxing the lockdown.

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