Hospital beds run out in Papua New Guinea as COVID-19 rises | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is facing an exponential increase in the spread of COVID-19, with nationwide reports of community transmission and large numbers of hospital workers and patients diagnosed with the virus.

The PNG joint task force reported 1,741 cases and 21 deaths as of March 9, nearly double the number of cases reported a month earlier and more than double the deaths reported two weeks earlier.

Experts fear the numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, as PNG has the sixth lowest COVID-19 test rate in the world. Only 5,240 per million people in the country have been tested, compared to 41,303 per million in neighboring Indonesia and 575,063 per million in Australia.

The Pacific nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is at the epicenter of the outbreak, where already severely underfunded hospitals are overwhelmed with patients showing symptoms of the disease.

“To say the health care system is under strain is an understatement,” Matt Cannon, CEO of St John Ambulance PNG, told Al Jazeera. “Hospitals face a significant inability to cope with not only patients with COVID-19, but all of the other health issues that people seek help for.

“In Port Moresby General there are only six intensive care beds and no isolation ward, so the emergency department is almost full of moderate to severe cases of COVID-19. Some patients are lying on the floor because they cannot get a bed and this poses a real threat to St. John Ambulance personnel, ”Cannon said.

“What is also worrying is the number of infected hospital staff. I’ve heard that up to 70 people now have COVID-19, which is a significant percentage of the hospital’s workforce.

Newly constructed apartment buildings are seen behind the stilt house village called Hanuabada, located in Port Moresby harbor, Papua New Guinea, November 19, 2018. [File: David Gray/Reuters]

Cannon says the pandemic was exacerbated by conspiracy theories which, along with belief in witchcraft and other superstitions, are a fact of life in PNG.

“There was a theory going around that Melanesians are immune to COVID-19, but it is quickly losing ground because many disbelievers have caught the virus,” he said. “One of the things we still struggle with is convincing sick people to self-isolate. We have little information on the number of cases in the community. But it’s clear to us that a segment of the population is showing symptoms and refusing to stay home. “

Skepticism about viruses

Gary Juffa, governor of Oro province, said some officials were encouraging disbelief in COVID-19.

“The majority of parliamentarians take the pandemic seriously and I know the Prime Minister is very worried,” he said. “But I can tell you from my observations that the general population does not think it is real and one of the reasons for that is that there are people in positions of responsibility who go around saying that the virus is not real, that vaccines are not good. . “

He adds, “I had COVID and lost three friends to COVID. They were educated people who were reasonably well off and had access to health care. They tested positive and did nothing about it and now they are all dead.

Port Moresby is the site of the epidemic in PNG. PNG capital has widespread poverty and limited hospital facilities [File: Mick Tsikas/EPA]

The source of the second wave of PNG has not been identified, although some believe it could have crossed the border into neighboring West Papua, a province of Indonesia, the country with the largest coronavirus outbreak. in Asia-Pacific.

“Our director at Lake Murray Lodge worked with the doctor to raise awareness about COVID-19,” said Bob Bates, CEO of Trans Niugini Tours, a travel agency operating in the Western Province, a remote part of the country that shares a porous and unmarked border with West Papua. “But from what I’ve heard, all of the cases relate to people arriving by plane and leaving the Ok Tedi mine.”

Cairns Hospital, one of northern Australia’s largest healthcare facilities, declared a ‘code yellow’ emergency this week following the arrival of six travelers who had been in quarantine after a flight since the Ok Tedi gold mine and who have been confirmed to be carriers of the coronavirus.

“There has always been a fear of spread from the Western Province, but the number of cases is low and associated with Ok Tedi,” said Stephen Howes, professor of economics at National University. Australian and PNG expert.

“The source of this second wave is more likely to be international visitors. You see, for a long time the pandemic was not bad in PNG and the government went into quarantine. Arriving passengers were asked to quarantine themselves at a list of specific hotels, but no one verified that they were actually going there. Now the whole country is paying the price. “

The rejection of the COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) would also contribute to the spread of the second wave in PNG.

“Last year, during the lockdown, the main market closed for a month,” said Peter Boyd, a New Zealand national living in Lae, the second largest city in PNG. “But now there are 5,000 people outside the market every morning without masks or social distancing and this place is breeding ground for disease. I think politicians here are more worried that people will lose money even though Lae is about to explode with COVID-19.

Funeral crowds

WHO has also raised concerns that the funeral for PNG’s first leader, Prime Minister Michael Somare, to be held this weekend in the town of Wewak on the country’s north coast, will become a very common event.

Thousands of people have lined up to pay tribute to Papua New Guinea’s first ruler, Prime Minister Michael Somare, who died last month. WHO has expressed concern over large crowds gathering for his funeral over the weekend [File: Andrew Kutan/AFP]

“Maintaining the six healthy behaviors throughout the grieving period and beyond will be important in preventing transmission. To protect themselves and others, it is important that mourners remember physical distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, ”said Dr Luo Dapeng, WHO Representative in Papua New Guinea , in a press release.

“In Oro province, we are taking very strict measures and planning a massive awareness campaign to prevent crowds from gathering,” Governor Juffa told Al Jazeera. “But 100,000 are going to Wewak for the funeral and they are all totally oblivious to what I would say is a time bomb. All the doctors say they are going to have a serious problem with an epidemic. Personally, I think a lot more needs to be done to prevent so many people from coming together. It is really scary.

PNG is part of COVAX, the global vaccine access initiative, which will distribute the AstraZeneca vaccine in the country. But the first shipment of 270,000 doses donated by Australia and India should not arrive until April. St. John Ambulance chief Cannon says it could be too little, too late.

“To say that we are now at the tipping point is incorrect,” he says. “We were at the tipping point three weeks ago, and this is something that should be of great concern to the region.”

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