TUMBY BAY - The government of Papua New Guinea has been meeting to discuss the possible impacts on the nation of the coronavirus (Covid-19).
So far the emphasis seems to be centred on economic matters and how revenue losses from any downturn in resource income will affect the bottom line of the budget.
In a statement issued two days ago, the Treasury identified two possible scenarios, one where the virus does not spread to PNG and the other where it does.
It calls the first scenario ‘contained’ and the other ‘uncontained’.
Anyone with an ounce of sense will realise that the possibility of the virus being kept out of PNG is remote in the extreme.
Why the government is seriously talking about such an option beggars belief.
It is not a case of whether the coronavirus will reach PNG but when it will arrive.
Given that there are now cases in Indonesia and a free flow of legal and illegal migration across the Indonesia-PNG border, to consider any lesser scenario is patently absurd.
According to the Treasury the uncontained’ scenario “is where coronavirus spreads throughout the country”.
“The economic and health implications will be much more serious,” the statement says. And it admits that “modelling is still occurring on the possible extent of the crisis”.
The statement goes on to say that “we are actively exploring options to fill some of the gaps from international assistance”.
These ‘filling the gap’ options include getting loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
This is way too little, way too late.
In defence of PNG it should be noted that many governments the world over are similarly lagging behind in their preparations. The USA, for instance, is way behind the eight ball.
A chastened Australian government, burnt by its terrible response to the recent bushfires, is now attempting to get ahead of this new crisis and, as far as can be ascertained, is beginning to do better.
But one thing it doesn’t seem to have factored into its thinking is the impact of the virus on places like PNG and other Pacific nations which will inevitably come looking to it for assistance.
This oversight is hard to figure out because a rampant and uncontrolled outbreak in PNG will be a major threat to Australia.
All that has been done so far is an attempt to close off travel across the Torres Strait.
The border between PNG and Australia in the Torres Strait is permeable and almost impossible to police.
So if there is a major outbreak of coronavirus in PNG it is inevitable that it will travel down that route.
Without being too alarmist, history tells us that outbreaks of disease in PNG are notoriously difficult to manage because of the terrain and the lack of resources.
The PNG government is trying to put a positive spin on the whole affair.
As the Treasury says: “We want to assure you the Marape-Steven government will continually demonstrate its leadership through action and using facts to inform our advice instead of preaching doom and stirring up panic that is counterproductive and misleading for the people of PNG”.
That sort of spin is not what is required now.
Neither are ‘modelling’ of impacts or ‘actively exploring options’. The time for that sort of head-in-the-sand navel gazing is long past.