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PNG drugs crisis - how many will die before morality prevails?


TB patient in Daru hospitalI NOTICED in the Sydney Morning Herald this week that China is showing her naval powers by sending three warships for a jaunt, through the straits between Java and Sumatra, down between Java and Christmas Island and then back through the straits between Bali and Lombok.

I found this interesting as I know the Australian navy has also been frequently navigating this area during the past few months turning back people smugglers.

During that time I’ve also been trying to see if I could help to solve the problems caused by the issuing of the contract for supplying pharmaceuticals to PNG.

PNG has had a history of having problems with its pharmaceuticals and over the past few years the Australian government has been helping with distribution and suggestions about purchase.

Recently the PNG government decided to demonstrate its independence from this advice and agreed to give the new contract to Borneo Pacific Pharmaceuticals (BPP), a company owned by the Poh family of Malaysia.

A serious consequence was that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which now handles aid, said it would no longer be willing to offer help – or money, a lot of money.

The main reason was that BBP is not an ISO rated company and buys its drugs from companies, including some in North China, which had been found to have sold faulty products.

BPP was chosen as it is a locally owned company, so I assume that the Poh family have become Papua New Guineans. As BPP says on its website – “Today BPP, a 100% local owned PNG Company has grown to be a diversified conglomerate supplying cost effective, quality pharmaceuticals and health care products. “

After talking with many concerned Papua New Guineans on various Facebook sites, I have come to believe that it is likely that elements other than price and quality have been involved in the decision to choose this particular suppler.

As BPP states – “We at BPP have not forgotten Our responsibilities as a good corporate citizen of PNG and have contributed and devoted extensive efforts to various charitable causes, schools and other organizations.”

A number of people have informed me that BPP has given gifts to some politicians and political parties, to people in the Central Supply and Tenders Board, and probably numerous other people with power and authority.

I have recently heard about a person with some inside knowledge who is not willing to become a whistle blower as he has been offered a very enjoyable trip to China.

Meanwhile, the doctors and professors of medicine are trying to warn the government of the possible problems that may lie ahead as a result of their decision to award the contract to BPP.

PNG has had a long history of dealing with poor quality medicines and fake drugs. The doctors feel the government should have heeded the advice of the Australian government and chosen a company with an accredited ISO quality rating to guarantee high standard drugs.

They should have not set the criteria that it had to be a locally owned company as there is obviously no other PNG company at the moment that could do it.

As an Australian who worked in PNG for many years and has built up many good friendships with PNG people, I feel very sorry and annoyed at the action of officials and politicians who have the responsibility to see that the people of PNG, right down to the poorest village person, are given good reliable medicines when they are sick.

To the educated working person in PNG, the fact that these people seem to have somehow benefited from allowing BPP to have the contract means, in their minds, that these people have accepted a bribe, in one form or another.

But the main worry for every thinking person of PNG is that in the future, when they are given medication, will be the concern - Is this tablet going to work or it just rubbish?

If people die after taking such medications, will anyone except their relatives care? Will anything be done? Will the procurement system then be changed?

These fears and doubts could be removed if the PNG government would behave ethically and start listening to the electorate – the people of PNG. 


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Kevin O'Regan

I will use this article as the vehicle concerning Manus has found its way into this forum.

The suggestion by both Robin and Phil regards the asylum seekers fishing for their supper has merit. If a suitable island with the Manusians permission of course was to become their "home' during processing why do they even need to be fenced in.

Give them some seeds and gardening tools that they grow their own vegetables and til the soil... a wokabaut sawmill or two... and fishing nets lines etc.

Limit outboard motors or they will travel too far offshore... allow them to inter mingle with their woman folk and children and allow them to become human beings again...

Supervision, yes, but not thugs in uniforms... maybe the Salvos are the way.

But they have the choice... assist in fending for yourself or return home to your place of origin... apply for Australian residency through the correct channels...

I know, the rantings of a silly old man... but I talk to a lot of very concerned people and the consensus in Lae is the current set up is "wrong".

Phil Fitzpatrick

Like you said Paul, there's nowhere for the asylum seekers to go so why not let them intermingle with the community. Further, they could make postive contributions to Manus. The man who was killed was an architect, why couldn't he have been given work designing infrastructure for Manus?

This is probably the scenario that Peter O'Neill envisaged when he did the deal with Rudd. Maybe Rudd thought that too.

Instead we have a concentration camp designed to punish people and discourage others coming. That is the part that sticks in my craw. The comment about Morrison's religious persuasions is probably intemperate but I can't help thinking of the hard and cruel god that is portrayed in the old testament.

Ed Brumby has some good points. Maybe the $38million that Julie Bishop snatched back could be redirected to set up an efficient screening process for drugs coming into PNG.

Ed Brumby

I'm not sure that a very small flotilla of warships sailing peaceably through international waters around Indonesia, as is their 'right', represents an assertion of China's naval powers.

Nor do I understand the connection between this event and the PNG government's decision to award a pharmaceuticals supply contract to BPP.

The only common factor is that both events involve Chinese. Unless, of course, the Poh family had such influence with the powers in Beijing that they arranged for a (small) show of force to bolster their chances of being awarded the tender.

It should also be borne in mind that ISO9001 certification does not guarantee the efficacy of a product produced or a service provided by an enterprise.

It simply certifies that the enterprise has an effective quality management system. It is theoretically possible, for example, to secure ISO9001 certification for a product that is of no use whatsoever.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you, Gary, for explaining to us the current situation as regards why BPP is still in control of the pharmceutical supply for the country.

The lack of understanding about standards says it all. That's probably why there are so many things wrong in PNG these days.

As you say there is this substantial ignorance amongst the people of PNG, which is quite understandable as so many have not had much in the way of education in the ways of the world. Then there is this substantial arrogance amongst some of the country's leaders who, without the necessary qualifications, have been put in charge of running the country.

So, what do we do now?

Fortunately my sadness at not being able to change this problem has been overshadowed by the fact that I have recently had many wonderful reunions with my old Sepik students via their Facebook Discussion Group.
I shall continue to pray for all of you.

Gary Juffa

On the last day of the first parliament session, just outside the chambers, I asked PUKA TEMU who is a Doctor and a politician and the current Minister for Public Service why the Health Ministry saw fit to remove the ISO 9001 requirement for companies bidding for the contract and why it was highly inflated. I asked because the previous week when I stood up to present my grievance on this issue, the SCAM that endangers our peoples lives, Puka promptly stood up after me to water down my concerns and downplay the SCAM by claiming it was all above board. PUKA told me distinctly that "ISO 9001 does not matter, it is only for companies manufacturing drugs, not those procuring them. Besides the Australian company that did it before also procured bad drugs and distributed it in PNG. Also we have bought machines to test imported drugs so we can verify our imported drugs" or words to that effect. He was supported by several Ministers standing or sitting around him all nodding enthusiastically in support of him. I said why the inflated price and he gave some unconvincing answer. I gave up and walked off in disgust as it was no point trying to point out that the ISO 9001 is a system of accrediting genuineness and effectiveness of a product or service for ANY organization. I learnt two things: there is substantial ignorance amongst our people and there is substantial arrogance amongst our leaders!

Robin Lillicrapp

Now you're talking, Paul.

I think I know just the guy /supervisor to ease around the Marxist predicament that potentially would arise- He's currently in Hervey bay.

Humour aside, there is no doubt the practical side of dealing with already depressed people in close confinement is via the same degrees of arrangement that often were resorted to by your peers in past times.

Paul Oates


that's not such a bad idea. It would give something tangible for these people to do and maybe give them some pride in what they might achieve for other people rather than just thinking about themselves and their self imposed predicament. Nothing like some vigorous work to help you sleep at night.

Of course it would be purely voluntary as any compulsion would be against UN arrangements but perhaps it could be a 'paid as you go' scheme. Can they be offered paid employment to cook and clean their camp? Also, where could these people escape to?

No fishing however as that might offend the local people unless of course they were paid for what was caught.

Also, maybe some of the illegals might actually get to like the PNG life once they meet local people on the other side of the wire. It might actually promote better relations with the people of Manus.

Husat isavi?

Robin Lillicrapp

An ex Kiap would have every asylum seeker of able body, fishing for supper or building roads or infrastructure.

Paul Oates

Phil, I take your point about responsibility and accountability. You are absolutely right however the principle seems to be ameliorating even as we speak.

I suggest that Minister Morrison's religious beliefs are however irrelevant to the principle of Parliamentary responsibility and accountability.

I suggest you are being slightly mischievous in trying to tie up one with the other. Anyone who may try to do so stands the risk of being thought of as perhaps a tad biased.

The real issue here is to ensure mistakes in government once discovered, do not happen again. Sacking either Morrison or Minister Malabag will not fix the problem but only show what will happen if their possible replacement doesn't act to ensure the reason for the problem is excised.

In the case of Minister Malabag, clearly the responsibility for what seems to be a disaster waiting to happen doesn't apparently worry anybody in the PNG government.

All the senior players have come out and supported the BPP decision as if they were singing from the same songsheet. Well, maybe they are and that songsheet was printed in another country to the north.

In the case of Morrison, he at least has accepted something is not right and is personally attempting to find out what went wrong and presumably try to fix it.

The regrettable situation is that there are so many people who could tell Minister Morrison what went went wrong and many have already done so without knowing the full facts or without taking the responsibility for this whole imbroglio that he didn't start and had to pick up and run with. Remember it was PM Rudd who left the arrangements which the Australian government is now committed to.

What is very clear is that Minister Malabag et al won't accept is that there has been anything go awry over the BPP decision or how it was made.

When you put a volatile group of people from different ethnic origins with serious multiple grievances in an enclosed space without effective and suitable supervision and support 'Blind Freddy' must be able to see there will be problems.

Why Phil, even you and me down in Oz can see that. Why therefore can't the people who are being paid to run the show, and a lot of money it is too, foresee the problems as well?

Maybe they need to employ an exkiap or two, eh mate?

Phil Fitzpatrick

What you are talking about Barbara is the chain of responsibility.

A similar thing exists with the asylum seeker problem on Manus. Morrison is at the head of the chain and there are many actors along the chain until you finally come to the person who hit the refugee over the head with a bit of wood and killed him. Everyone from Morrison along is culpable in the death but none of them see it as their fault. Morrison should be man enough to take responsibility but he thinks he is working for the greater good and the dead asylum seeker is just necessary collateral damage. If Morrison was a real Christian and not a fundamentalist nutter he would take the rap.

Same with the Minister of Health. He has distanced himself by virtue of his position along the chain.

Tony Abbott should sack Morrison and O'Neill should sack the Health Minister.

Another point worth noting is the owners of BPP's attitude to bribery and corruption. To them it is a normal part of business. Buying people off with bribes is an honourable tactic; there is no hint of wrongdoing associated with it. It's just good business practice.

One of the reasons I lodged the comment today is because the issue seems to be dying a natural death. This is what the Health Minister wants. This shouldn't be allowed to happen.

Mrs Barbara Short

Good point Phil. It is a wonder that BPP hasn't tried to buy an ISO Certificate on the black market.

I feel that the concept of "responsibility" that an Australian pharmacist has when he sells medicines is missing from the PNG Dept. of Health personel. They do not have any respect for or understanding of the fact that in their hands lies life or death. If they end up procuring tablets from BPP and distributing them all over PNG and hundreds die from a poison in the tablets who will take the blame?

Will the Minister for Health just lose his job? Will the Secretary of Health and his Technical Advisors (the Secretary has to have them because he is evidently not medically trained and is a lawyer) be held responsible? Or will they just blame it on BPP? Who pays the compensation for all the people who died? Who goes to prison for murdering hundreds of people?

We can suspect that someone has been given gifts and free trips so that BPP can have the contract. Shouldn't these people be held responsible? Shouldn't they be made to pay for their crime? They have accepted gifts of money or trips for awarding government contracts worth millions of Kina which will allow the owners of BPP to grow very rich, especially if they buy these fake drugs sold all over the developing world at the moment.

Paul Oates

Interesting point Phil.

Maybe that gap in the corruption chain is due to a lack of available personal resources at the disposal of any PNGian who controls the funds? Maybe its just too hard to give up a little of what you have seen as a windfall once you get your hands on the money.

Maybe it's due to the old reciprocity syndrome kicking in? If you offer a large sum to someone, they'd better be able and willing to give back a similar amount of goods/favours in kind. If they haven't the means to do so, then you'll only offend them if you give too much.

That apparent anomaly won't last however as it seems to be clear that in today's PNG, the corrupt have gained the upper hand and don't intend to give it up without a fight.

It will take a big effort to overturn what seems to have become entrenched. Either that or a total collapse in control and a rebuilding session under a 'straight' leader/s.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Being a bit of a cynic I believe that most things are corruptible; it's just a matter of knowing the right people and agreeing on a price.

In this sense it's hard to know why BPP hasn't bought itself an ISO rating. The only conclusion I can draw is that they hold the PNG government in such disdain that they don't think the expenditure is worth the effort. They obviously think that the Health Minister is extremely stupid.

In my experience Papua New Guineans are very good at being corrupted and taking bribes but they are not very good at offering bribes to other people. I can't think of anyone I know who has been bribed by a Papua New Guinean politician or public servant. At best they can only slip a wantok a few kina or fix them up with a job. Of course, they buy off voters during elections but this is not really the devious corruption as practised by the Asians.

Mrs Barbara Short

Yes, Peter, but Australia is still taking in refugees, when they follow the correct process and we can ensure they are genuine refugees.

There are "correct processes" to be followed in PNG when it comes to buying medicines for the populace. At the moment they have not been followed and the people run the risk of dying from faulty medicines.

I heard from a top PNG doctor how, quite recently, certain tablets that they were taking in PNG were found to be made by some young people in Indonesia and they were just full of rubbish.

I believe in following correct processes.

Peter Kranz

Barbara - "the Australian navy has also been frequently navigating this area during the past few months turning back people smugglers."

It's also been alleged to have infringed Indonesian territorial waters on many occasions, loaded boat people onto Australian -purchased hi-tech lifeboats, and smuggled them back to Indonesia, and possibly caused harm to them in the process. All in contravention of numerous conventions, international treaties, Australian law and loudly-asserted policy.

But the defence minister is outraged that anyone could make such claims (even though ADF personnel have been found guilty of sexual and physical abuse quite recently.)

While I am sure that the vast majority of Australian defence force staff (and Customs/Border Protection - the number of agencies involved is confusing) are innocent or 'just following orders'; the line of culpability goes to the highest levels. The Ministers in charge and who are dictating the policy.

And remember - Morrison is a born again evangelical. I'm sure if there were any traditional carvings outside Parliament House in Canberra he would be attacking them with a chain saw right now.

Paul Oates

Standing back and taking a ‘helicopter view’ of the essence of this problem indicates that it fundamentally originates in culture.

The reasons behind this whole affair have to be understood before any attempt can be made to sort it out.

Asian culture is very similar to PNG culture in many ways. Reciprocity is very highly regarded. If someone gives you something they expect something in return but not necessarily at the same time but certainly of the same or similar value. If a gift of unequal value is returned, both the giver and the receiver lose ‘face’ or feel shamed in some way.

In business, this concept of reciprocity can lead to very firm friendships and good relations. National and titular heads of government also exchange gifts as a sign of their regard for each other and their country. Yet this can lead to problems if those giving the gifts believe they are giving them personally and not as a representative of their nation and paid for by the nation’s taxpayers.

Many western nations now try to limit this gift giving as the receiver is never allowed to keep the present to their nation unless they buy it with their own money. As an example, an Australian PM gave the US president a video of his favoured football teams winning the grand final and received a tennis racquet in return. The intrinsic nature of the gift is then appreciated for what it’s worth rather than the value of the gift.

In Asia, the value of the gift can be important to both the giver and receiver. This is very similar to PNG culture however when modern day business gets involved and enormous sums of money are concerned, the stakes are raised to very high levels. People who are giving ‘gifts’ would not be happy if their gifts were to be seemingly ignored or overlooked. Both the giver and the recipient know this at the time the gift is given.

The impasse is that when public funds and government taxpayer monies are involved, the situation becomes very serious. There are laws that can then be broken if the correct processes are not followed and the law is actually broken. If public health may be threatened, then this is very serious indeed and concerns every PNGian.

Therein lies the conundrum of the moment. The law can only be known to be broken if someone speaks out and tells those responsible authorities that the law has been broken. But what about if those in charge of the authorities are the ones actually breaking the law?

In PNG, were the Ombudsman and the Public Prosecutor and the Police Commissioner aware that the law may have been broken they would have to act or in turn risk being involved in the reported corruption and law breaking. However, if no one says anything, those who may have broken the law happily sit back and enjoy their rewards.

In PNG today, it takes someone of exceptional character and honesty to raise a serious issue that could involve those in power. That this issue has now been raised in Parliament by at least two members and outside in the media by reputable people and highly qualified medical authorities must surely indicate that the time has come for the law to investigate the recent decision over public pharmaceuticals.

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