SYDNEY - Travel between the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea has been banned after unconfirmed reports of a coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak in the Western Province of PNG.
The PNG government has yet to confirm any cases of Covid-19 in the country but councillor Kebei Salee of the Western Province village of Sigabadaru, said there were unconfirmed cases in the villages of Buji and Ber, while cautioning that “we are waiting for the results of testing”.
The two coastal PNG villages are remote and accessible only by boat. They lack basic infrastructure, including any level of medical care.
However, they are only a 10km dinghy ride to Boigu Island, the mostly northerly island of the Torres Strait, with a population of about 300 people.
People from these and 11 other PNG coastal villages along the Western Province coast are allowed to travel across the Torres Strait to visit the island communities in Australian territory under the Torres Strait Treaty to maintain traditional kinship and trading relationships.
They can cross without a passport or visa and there are up to 50,000 visits a year under the treaty.
The Torres Strait regional island council’s mayor, Fred Gela, said authorities were putting in place measures to protect the Australian mainland but the Torres Strait had been left exposed.
“People can get in a dinghy and come straight across to the Torres Strait, and while our health centres are equipped with the capacity to test for the virus, we cannot afford the availability, time or capacity to test everyone crossing the border under the treaty,” he said.
Residents of all the Western Province Treaty villages regularly travel back and forth to the island of Daru, which is the region’s commercial centre and has a population of 15,000.
There is a hospital on Daru but it is often poorly equipped and has been identified as a hotspot for other infectious diseases spreading due to overcrowding in the island’s slums.
It has some of the world’s worst infection rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, as well as a resurgence of leprosy due to lack of medical supplies and access to health services.
Torres Strait Islanders are exposed to these communicable diseases by migration movement under the Torres Strait Treaty, where they are six times more likely to contact MDR TB than non-Indigenous mainland Australians.
Queensland Health’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, said the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service was well-prepared to respond to coronavirus but she did not confirm if any reports of outbreaks in PNG had been received.
The proximity with Indonesia, with the West Papuan town of Merauke only a dinghy ride away from the Torres Strait, also posed a potential threat from Covid-19.