Shut down borders & prepare the people
Coronavirus threatens PNG economy

Coronavirus and PNG


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.


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Bernard Corden

Could somebody please establish a link between mobile phone use, text messaging and the coronavirus

Bernard Corden

It's such a pity the Manus Island regional processing centre has been closed. It would have been an ideal place to send our Minister for Home Affairs:

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was doing the same thing in the Star Mountains Chris.

As I understood it the flu had come down from the Southern Highlands where the fatality rate was in the thousands.

Although I didn't receive any training I did know that injecting people in the bum was especially dangerous because there is a potential for injury to the sciatic nerve or the superior gluteal artery if the injection is misdirected.

I also recall that we were using and reusing glass vialled syringes with needles that got progressively blunter the more people we stabbed.

And when we inevitably got the flu ourselves I learned how much those thick blunt needles could hurt.

Chris Overland

In late 1969, I was summoned to the ADC’s office at Kerema and told that I was to prepare to go immediately on patrol in the mountains lying to the north of the town.

I was to be accompanied by three Aid Post Orderlies and several Police. Our task was to identify and treat people suffering from the Hong Kong Flu, which was by then running rampant across the world and had finally reached PNG.

So far as I can recall, similar patrols were being sent out all over the district and, presumably, the entire country, to cope with what rapidly became a major public health emergency.

Before my departure, I was sent to the hospital to learn how to inject people with Procaine Penicillin. This drug was known to be an effective treatment of the pneumonia which was and still is the primary source of fatalities amongst flu victims.

I can still remember how to quarter a buttock and then stab the needle into the upper quadrant of the gluteus maximus muscle with considerable force, before slowly injecting the buttock with about 30 millilitres of the drug. The result was a large, sore lump in the bum, which slowly released the drug throughout the body to fight the infection.

Less than 48 hours later my colleagues and I were deposited by helicopter at Paingoba village in the Pepike census district. From there, we were asked to visit as many nearby villages as possible to identify and treat flu victims who had subsequently contracted pneumonia.

We soon found many people who were very sick indeed and began treating them.

Anyone who has had Procaine Penicillin will know that it is an unpleasant process. I can verify this from firsthand experience, having endured several such injections at various times to treat serious infections, notably very severe tonsillitis.

Nevertheless, the people bore this treatment stoically. I was especially sorry for the children we treated in this way but it had to be done.

Over the course of several weeks, the patrol saw or treated at least 200 people. At least 22 people died in the relatively small area our patrol could reach, 11 of them in one poor village.

I have no idea what the overall death toll was in PNG, but total deaths across the world were estimated to be between one and four million. By inference, some thousands of Papua New Guineans must have died as a consequence of contracting a disease for which they had no natural immunity.

The response of the colonial administration was very rapid and very comprehensive, at least as far as its resources allowed. This no doubt mitigated the worst impact of the disease but fell short of the effort required to reach everyone in the country at that time.

Now, with COVID 19 spreading rapidly, PNG is once again under threat, this time by an apparently much more virulent disease with a death rate of around 3.5%.

My sense is that PNG is much less well prepared now to deal with this disease than it was in the case of the Hong Kong Flu. There seems to be a certain amount of complacency and dithering on the part of the government.

This may be wrong, and I hope it is, but the consequences of an inadequate response could be devastating.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Martyn Namorong, who is now a Treasury research officer, advises that there is a COVID-19 Hotline. It is 7196 0813.

What happens when you call the hotline is not quite clear. Maybe someone can enlighten us.

Some older readers may recall the flu epidemics that ripped through the highlands in the 1970s. Flu is also a virus so PNG's high ambient temperature may not be a protection. The common cold is also caused by a virus and that seems to survive just about everywhere, hot and cold.

So far in Australia there have been few cases reported in our hot tropics. It will be interesting to see what happens there as the spread gains pace.

Paul Oates

Let's call a spade a spade and not a shovel, although we'll see more metaphoric shoveling the longer this situation goes on.

Governments are in the process of giving the impression they are in control in order that there not be panic and mayhem.

Blind Freddy has only to look at what is happening elsewhere in the world to understand what will happen when the virus starts spreading.

What the Chinese with their authoritative control couldn't prevent is the sudden panic that spread the virus out of Wuhan before there was a lock down.

What Australia couldn't and wouldn't do is to install immediate quarantine on everyone wanting to arrive in the country. Hence the only action they were prepared to take was to give the impression they were in control and knew what they were doing.

Human nature is what it is. Those who tested positive to the disease instead of going home and self isolating went out and bought their supplies and left their face masks off for fear of being stigmatised. There was therefore no control at all.

Self quarantine in Australia might theoretically work when food and medicine might just be able to be home delivered. In PNG? You've got to be joking.

All governments can really do is give the semblance of control when they are really expecting a nightmare.

I know someone who has put his home and property into lock down and set them up for a month. So what happens after that month when the supplies run out?

The real test is to have sufficient medical help available when the virus spreads. That situation is probably going to just be met in countries like Australia but we still don't know. China had to build new hospitals in 14 days but still couldn't cope with the effects that we know of.

Translate that locally and you can see where this may possibly lead.

The real issue is that the effects of the virus are felt differently by some people depending on their immune system. The elderly may be at greater risk than the young.

It's obvious the worse is yet to come. Enjoy your seniors and learn from them while you can.

Of course, that should go without question anyway. Err... shouldn't it?

Daniel Kumbon

There was a mass prison breakout at Baisu jail near Mt Hagen last month. Eight prisoners were shot dead, 28 were recaptured and 66 are still at large.

Six wounded were taken to Mt Hagen Hospital where, that evening, armed thugs overpowered the hospital security guards and took away the wounded.

On 29 February, the young son of one of the correctional officers was shot dead supposedly by relatives in revenge for the eight escapees shot dead.

Does anybody care if the innocent son was not a correctional officer?

Does anybody care about a woman who dies in children birth in a remote village in Daru or one who dies from TB or other curable diseases or somebody who is killed at gunpoint on the highway?

What is the difference between one who will die from Coronavirus (Covid-19) and deaths from these other causes?

In a laid back country, the government tends to think that the disease is too far away and perhaps assumes that it will never reach shore.

If it does arrive, the government will deal with it like it treats the other causes of death that plague the country.


Robin Lillicrapp

It will be interesting to see if the ambient temperatures in PNG are high enough to stem the anticipated tide of viral influence.

Western reports suggest the virus cannot survive environments over 27C.

There's an element of truth here because when exposed to sunlight (ultraviolet light) viruses die and the spread in warmer countries has not (yet) been as severe as in temperate countries. But it's still spreading, as we see in countries like Singapore and Australia, where temperatures hovered between 23 and 33°C in February - KJ

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