With 8 cases so far, PNG is already feeling the impact of COVID-19

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A view of stilt houses along Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo by: gailhampshire / CC BY

CANBERRA — Papua New Guinea closed its international borders in March after its first case of COVID-19 was detected — brought into the country by a foreign worker. The detection of a second case put a province in lockdown, with PNG Prime Minister James Marape warning that the country’s “hospitals and health systems don't have the capacity to deal with the outbreak."

As of May 25, only eight cases of COVID-19 had been reported — and all recovered. But with less than 3,000 people tested in a country of 8.95 million people, concern for COVID-19 remains high.

For PNG this not just created panic within the health sector but has dramatically changed the way that people can move for work and engage in business.

Impact on health systems

For Peter Botten, chairman of the Hela Provincial Health Authority, supporting provincial health services in PNG before the pandemic was difficult. Doctors and medical services were in short supply. And there was a shortfall in funding for day-to-day health needs.

“You can honestly say that the system and supply of health delivery in the country, certainly in rural and remote communities, is very challenging,” Botten said at a webinar organized by the Lowy Institute on May 18. “And even before COVID [it] was challenging.”

Funding for COVID-19 activities, he said, remained “very patchy.”

Setting up isolation areas and processes to educate was a “real challenge,” Botten said. Training staff on how to respond and react to cases was also an ongoing problem. They remain scared about the health effects for them and their families, he said.

“Provision of [personal protective equipment] has been a significant issue in remote areas and continues to be a challenge, but it has improved over the last four weeks or so,” he said.

Management plans for the pandemic were still ongoing, and training using World Health Organization guidance on COVID-19 was taking place via Zoom meetings. But concerns remain.

“I sincerely pray we don’t get serious outbreaks because it will be challenging, undoubtedly, for the whole medical sector to manage,” Botten said.

Impact on business

Peter Aitsi, group CEO of PNG finance organization Credit Corporation Limited and chairman of PNG Transparency International, explained that many businesses were highly reliant on mobilizing and moving people across the borders or had large expatriate workforces. The closure of borders meant that these businesses were heavily impacted and needed to transition to new ways of working to continue.

“You can honestly say that the system and supply of health delivery in the country, certainly in rural and remote communities, is very challenging.”

— Peter Botten, chairman, Hela Provincial Health Authority

One of the most highly visible impacts, Aitsi said, was in Port Moresby.

“We have seen two major chains shut down two large hotels here as a result of the limited number of international arrivals coming into Port Moresby,” he said.

But domestic lockdowns were equally impactful on the workforce.

“In terms of the domestic market, there has also been a significant impact,” Aitsi said. “The state of emergency caused us to lock down our provinces. ... The fundamental business model for us in terms of trade is people movement. So, as a result, it caused significant impact in terms of the ability of businesses to continue to trade and operate.”

The impact on larger businesses was flowing through to small businesses and entrepreneurs who were reliant on supporting projects for larger enterprises, or closed because of stay-at-home emergency controls.

“A lot of our entrepreneurs are left to either create the innovation and solve the problem, or they’re left ... in the survival mode,” Priscilla Kevin, a PNG based IT entrepreneur and founder of PNG Women in STEM, explained. “And that’s what we’ve experienced with a lot of small businesses.”

For ICT businesses, some projects have come to a halt, and Kevin said they are looking at other alternatives to sustain themselves. But there are other challenges also.

“In the ICT space … one of the things we have a very big challenge in is the cost of internet and accessibility across the nation and across the capital — which is not easy for a lot of entrepreneurs to access at the moment,” she said.

Post-COVID, Kevin is anticipating that internet and connectivity will be a priority for business and economic recovery, but she is also hoping that better data — and real-time data — will be available to improve decision-making, including for businesses.

“The challenge we also have is looking at the data we have,” she said. “What actually is happening on the ground. We don’t have enough data to assess the situation, so post-COVID hopefully we can look at some of this data and plan better.”

Transparency challenges

In addition to having better data to improve business and policy decisions, Aitsi highlighted concerns of Transparency International on how public funds were being directed and spent, saying there was a need to assure the PNG public that money was going where it would have the biggest impact.

“Our concern through Transparency International is about the transparency and level of accountability around the release of some of these funds,” he said.

“Our issue is that the public needs to ensure that it has visibility and confidence in how the government manages these funds as it is deployed in the various initiatives the government has within its response to COVID.”

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Aitsi called on the PNG government to regularly report back to the public in terms of how much money has been released, how it is being used, and its current status. A real-time transparency platform would enable easy access to this data. Instead, the current funding data is chaotic.

“Unfortunately, what we have found is that there are multiple streams of funding being released, and as a result, it is very difficult for the public to track how much has been released and what level of funding has actually gone down to the provinces and the health practitioners that need it the most,” Aitsi said.

It was an area of reform he would continue to progress to ensure recovery in PNG would leave no one behind.

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.