In Brief: COVID-19 situation in PNG is worse than official numbers suggest

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Australian air force personnel prepare to load COVID-19 vaccines and humanitarian aid for transport to Papua New Guinea. Photo by: Darren England / Reuters

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the World Health Organization believe there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea, and that official numbers provide no real understanding of the full extent of the pandemic.

As part of Senate Estimates in Canberra on March 25, Gerald Thomson from the Pacific Bilateral Division explained that the March 24 tally of 4,109 confirmed cases was an underestimation due to low testing numbers — which stand at 60,700 since the beginning of the pandemic. Current presentations to hospitals also suggested transmission was greater. While hospitals were not yet at full capacity, Thomson said they were under stress.

“That is not the advice we are getting from other people,” Penny Wong, shadow minister for foreign affairs, said to Thomson. “That is not the advice we are receiving.”

What is the concern? Before Australia responded with supply of personal protective equipment and 8,480 vaccines, which will be rolled out next week to front-line health workers in Port Moresby, Wong said NGOs on the ground warned that the situation was dire. A slow response and poor testing could mean the virus has spread further and wider than anticipated in a country where social distancing is difficult.

The number of vaccines is also a concern. PNG estimates they have 30,000 front-line and auxiliary health workers, and with vaccine deliveries through COVAX not expected until April and May, health systems could be further stressed.

What is needed? A better understanding of the spread of COVID-19 in PNG is needed, as well as more vaccines. Frances Adamson, secretary of DFAT, said Australian missions in Europe were focused on negotiating for vaccine access. Despite Australia now manufacturing the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, there was no confirmation on these being available for PNG. Adamson said this was a “matter of ongoing conversation.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.