Nurse on Covid frontline fears for Australia's nearest neighbour

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read

With the world's eyes on India, those on the frontlines of the Covid crisis in Papua New Guinea say more help is needed to suppress the virus. 

Australia's nearest neighbour had largely insulated itself from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic but a surge in cases in March threatened to overwhelm the island nation's limited health infrastructure. 

Daily new infections peaked around the end of March but official statistics are believed to show only part of the picture. 

Health workers on the frontline are working frantically to deal with a rise in patients. 

Crowds gather for Covid testing in rural Papua New Guinea.
Given the rural population, difficult terrain and limited healthcare infrastructure, it is hard to carry out mass testing in many parts of PNG. Source: Getty Images

Jennifer Pyakalyia, president of the PNG Midwifery Society at the Port Moresby General Hospital, works out in the field and told Yahoo News Australia she currently had seven Covid-19 patients right now and two were going for surgery.

"We are all over the place," she said.

"There are people everywhere."

In the latest figures released by the health department, PNG recorded 80 new cases in the 24-hour period to Monday. To date there have been 10,915 officially recorded cases and 107 Covid deaths.

The true numbers are likely to be much higher as the country's fragile health system is unable to conduct mass testing.

"We are very, very short of PPE and human resources... At this moment we need more," Ms Pyakalyia stressed.

"But that is not stopping us, we are committed to doing what we can."

Port Moresby General Hospital. Source: Port Moresby General Hospital
Healthcare workers and advocacy groups would like to see more help sent to Port Moresby and PNG. Source: Port Moresby General Hospital

After PNG's Parliament was reportedly forced to adjourn last week for four months due to rising cases among MPs and staff, Ms Pyakalyia is not confident healthcare workers have seen the worst of the Covid wave. 

"We don't know. Only God knows," she said.

Many healthcare workers in PNG have received at least one vaccine jab after about 8000 were sent from Australia.

There are three Australian midwifes currently working with Ms Pyakalyia at the hospital, and when asked if she would like to see more help from countries like Australia, she didn't hesitate.

"Yes please," she said.

It's something advocacy groups are calling on including the End Covid for All campaign which is calling for the Australian government to invest $1 billion to boost the Covid-ravaged health systems of the Asia-Pacific, to better support nurses and their patients as the pandemic continues to rage in much of the world.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Port Moresby on March 30.
PNG PM James Marape gets theAstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Port Moresby. Source: Getty Images

'Hard to think of a smarter investment'

Reverend Tim Costello AO, an ambassador for the campaign as well as World Vision, said the Australian Government could do more to strengthen the regional effort.

"Right now in Papua New Guinea, top health experts warn we could have one million Covid cases within weeks. In this crisis it's hard to think of a smarter investment than in nurses and health support for our near neighbours," he said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Whilst the Australian Government have made a contribution in the region, they can and must go further. 

"We must invest in the nurses, hospitals and health equipment that gets our mates in nations like PNG through this crisis and helps them to rebuild for the future.

"Many of our neighbours were already battling diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and malaria before Covid hit. The pandemic has made that so much harder. They need our support."

Australia is still chasing one million AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine doses for PNG with Trade Minister Dan Tehan sent to Europe to negotiate their release. 

However difficult challenges remain once the vaccines are secured as vaccine hesitancy is rife in the country, with deeply ingrained superstitions and misinformation about exaggerated medical risks spreading on social media.

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