PNG ramps up restrictions as Covid spike overwhelms hospitals

Gorethy Kenneth
·3-min read
In the capital Port Moresby, people will be asked not to leave home except for 'medical, employment and business purposes' and shops will have to close by 8pm

Papua New Guinea will shut schools, limit non-essential movement and make mask-wearing mandatory, the country's pandemic controller told AFP on Thursday, to stem a surge in Covid-19 cases overwhelming local hospitals.

"All the schools in the country will shut down at the end of this week following a sharp increase" in cases, Pandemic Controller David Manning said.

In the capital Port Moresby, people will be asked not to leave home except for "medical, employment and business purposes" and shops will have to close by 8pm.

The government is expected to announce the measures to the public later on Thursday and a series of local lockdowns could also be introduced.

Papua New Guinea shut its borders last year and dodged the worst of the pandemic, but has reported well over 1,000 cases in the last month alone.

On Tuesday the country reported a record 128 new cases but experts fear transmission is now widespread, as testing levels remain extraordinarily low.

All the provinces of the impoverished South Pacific nation of nine million are "currently experiencing Covid-19 surges," Manning said.

There are ominous signs the surge is overwhelming the country's perennially strained health sector, which is already contending with polio, drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

Doctors told AFP on Thursday that several major facilities had been forced to close or reduce capacity because staff had tested positive for the virus.

Port Moresby General Hospital CEO Paki Molumi said around 70 percent of staff had tested positive while Gerehu Hospital, the capital's second referral hospital, has been closed.

Health minister Jelta Wong told AFP on Wednesday the wave will "spike" further in coming weeks, calling on drug-maker AstraZeneca to urgently divert one million vaccine doses bought by Australia to staunch the looming crisis.

The first deliveries of 8,000 vaccines for frontline workers are expected to arrive from Australia on Monday.

"The community transmission is out there, and I'm pretty sure that we haven't detected a lot of it," Wong admitted. "But we're running at full capacity just to ensure that we do get to all places."

Papua New Guinea's rough terrain of high mountain valleys, dense jungles and a lack of infrastructure make gauging the scale of the emergency difficult.

But Australia's chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there were reports hospitals in the capital Port Moresby were detecting the virus in about half of new patient admissions.

"Half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive. We're seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with Covid-19," he said Wednesday.

The vast Ok Tedi mine in the north of the country on Thursday announced it was closing operations for two weeks in response to the outbreak.

The copper and gold mine sits in the remote Papua New Guinea highlands, employs thousands of people and accounts for around seven percent of the country's GDP, according to company figures.

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