Sunday, October 24

‘This is what we feared’: How a country that avoided the worst of Covid was finally hit | Papua New Guinea

When Papua New Guinea registered its first Covid case in March 2020, the country held its breath.

There were great fears that he was already in the country. overwhelmed and under-resourced healthcare system, which has approximately 500 doctors to serve a population of around nine million, and was already struggling to cope with outbreaks of measles, drug-resistant tuberculosis and polio.

But for a long time, the Covid crisis did not take hold of PNG.

Now, a year later, as vaccines allow many countries to wait for the end of the pandemic, the catastrophe that experts predicted has finally reached Papua New Guinea.

“This is what we all feared last year when the pandemic started,” said Dr. William Pomat, director of the Papua New Medical Research Institute.

In the past month, the number of confirmed cases in Papua New Guinea has skyrocketed, from fewer than 900 cases and nine deaths in early February to 2,658 confirmed cases and 36 deaths in mid-March.

“We’re seeing more people get seriously ill from Covid-19 this year compared to previous waves,” said Matt Cannon, St. John’s commissioner.

Authorities fear that the scale of the outbreak has been masked by low testing rates, with only 55,000 tests conducted nationwide during the pandemic, and that the true number of infections could be many times higher.

St John's Ambulance conducts Covid tests at the Taurama Aquatic Center in Port Morseby.
St John’s Ambulance conducts Covid tests at the Taurama Aquatic Center in Port Morseby. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu / The Guardian

‘Fragile health system’

Writing in The Guardian earlier this week, Glen Mola, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Port Moresby General Hospital in the nation’s capital, warned that 30% of the maternity ward staff had tested positive for Covid and expressed his fear that they would. not being able to keep the hospital doors open and women “may end up dying in the hospital parking lot.”

“We have a very fragile health system and stress is already being felt. We may collapse very soon if we are not careful … It is a ticking time bomb, ”said Dr. Sam Yockopua, director of emergency medicine in Port Moresby.

Stigma around the virus still rife in the Pacific country, with many refusing to get tested even when showing symptoms. Masks are only used to enter buildings, but outside in the bustling city, people still walk around without masks as conspiracy theories and immunity claims mount.

In the Port Moresby public market, people complain about having to wear masks, saying that Covid-19 cannot harm Papua New Guineans because of their skin tone, a myth that emerged at the beginning of the pandemic. as an explanation for PNG’s low infection rates.

St John's ambulance has set up driving using covid testing in Port Morseby.
St John’s Ambulance has installed covid test drives in Port Morseby. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu / The Guardian

‘Covid-19 will not affect us’

When Julie Osafa, 53, boards a crowded bus from Port Moresby to Boroko, she dismissed fears about the spread of Covid-19.

“PNG we are a Christian country, Covid-19 will not affect us. They are just lying to us, ”he said.

Her 46-year-old friend Anna John added that the Covid-19 vaccine was the end of time and vaccination would mark Papua New Guineans with the sign of the devil.

“They made Covid-19 to be able to vaccinate us and put the mark of the beast, Satan, on us,” he said.

Even the family of an 86-year-old man suspected of dying from Covid-19 has called the virus a “government conspiracy.”

Australia has been quick to provide aid to its closest neighbor, promising to deliver 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and asking the European Union to divert one million doses of the vaccine bound for Australia to PNG. But many in Papua New Guinea still do not want to be vaccinated and are against the blockade of “national isolation” that will begin next week. Schools will close and travel will be prohibited.

Such beliefs and conspiracy theories have prompted the country’s prime minister, James Marape, and other members of parliament to come forward saying they will be the first to be vaccinated, offering earlier this week to be the “guinea pig” of the vaccine.

“For those who think Covid-19 is a joke, or are playing games; this is an established global pandemic, ” he warned.

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