‘Luck has run out’: The catastrophe on Australia’s doorstep

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read

A quiet catastrophe is unfolding on Australia's doorstep as our nearest neighbour faces a potentially devastating late wave of Covid-19.

Papua New Guinea had largely insulated itself from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic but a surge in cases is causing serious concern the country's limited health infrastructure will be unable to cope.

Thanks to its relative isolation, warm climate, less urban living and border controls, PNG has been lucky so far.

"But the luck has run out," warns Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program.

Poreporena Villages in PNG's capital of Port Moresby. Source: Getty
PNG's capital of Port Moresby has been hit by a late wave of Covid-19. Source: Getty

The island nation of nearly nine million people recorded 376 new cases between March 1 and 9, according to data from PNG's Covid-19 National Pandemic Response. However with a low testing rate, the real number is thought to be much higher.

With a positivity rate in the high teens earlier this week, case numbers are showing an exponential trend upwards.

"Most alarming is in the nation’s capital of Port Moresby. The country’s largest hospital, Port Moresby General, is completely overwhelmed. More than 60 staff have now tested positive, and new patients are being sent away," Mr Pryke wrote on Thursday.

"Forty percent of women admitted to the hospital’s labour ward are testing positive for the virus.

"More than a dozen MPs reported to have contracted the virus in recent weeks. Two MPs are currently in intensive care."

Limited resources could prove catastrophic for PNG

To date, official figures show Papua New Guinea has only recorded 21 deaths linked to Covid-19, but with uncertainty about the country's vaccine rollout, that number is sure to move significantly higher in the coming months.

Eighty-four new cases were reported Wednesday while cases in March are tipped to exceed 800, stretching the very limited resources of hospitals in the country.

"That might not seem like a large number in other health systems, but in this one, that has the potential for a catastrophe," St John Ambulance PNG chief executive Matt Cannon told the ABC.

Professor Glen Mola, a doctor at Port Moresby General Hospital, took to Facebook to lament the worsening situation and call for people to listen and take heed of public health messages.

"Patients are dying of COVID every day now. We are trying to look after patients in other wards because there is no space in the COVID ward," he wrote.

PNG locals.
Health authorities are urging the public not to be complacent as case numbers grow. Source: Getty

"Positive cases are now infecting the nurses and doctors. Last week we had to put 10 staff off work because of COVID infection – if more staff have to go off work, then we may not be able to keep the hospital open."

Containers will be made available for the bodies of the dead, local official Dr Daoni Esorom told PNG newspaper The National.

"It takes probably nine hours for the Covid-19 virus to (remain) in the body (after death),” he said.

Covid patients from PNG entering Australia

An influx of Covid-19 patients from Papua New Guinea has contributed to Cairns Hospital declaring its first 'Code Yellow' in more than 18 months.

In a statement Wednesday, the hospital said it had six patients with Covid-19 in isolation, all of whom travelled from PNG.

"All patients were detected with the virus in hotel quarantine, and transferred to the hospital as per usual processes, to prevent any risk of community infection," executive director of medical services Don Mackie said.

The government first flagged plans for a sped up vaccination roll out for a number of islands neighbouring PNG last week.

"It's only a matter of kilometres, and there's a lot of trade and commerce that usually happens, and we are seeing more and more cases, unfortunately, in Papua New Guinea," Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said last Friday.

Vaccines on the way but questions remain

The island nation likely won't get its first shipments of vaccines until next month at the earliest. The World Health organisation is assisting, but details around the planning of the vaccine rollout remain unclear.

Large crowds are expected to travel and gather for funeral celebrations for the late Sir Michael Somare, the country's first prime minister, who died almost a fortnight ago.

However due to the surge in cases, top doctors were urging authorities to call off Friday's state funeral over fears it could increase the spread of the virus, causing the situation to further spiral out of control.

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Earlier in the week PNG authorities warned against coronavirus complacency and urged people to get tested and follow health guidelines.

Pandemic Response Controller David Manning said that while there were no plans yet to restrict the movement of people, "they need to listen and adhere to the protocols in place".

"I have been warning (about) our ignorance and complacency towards the measures. This is the result," he said.

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