Getting used to culture shock
An unnecessary shot in the leg

God, Covid-19 & remote health

The remote Fly River port of Kiunga in PNG's Western Province

| DevPolicy Blog

CANBERRA - The first Covid-19 case reached Papua New Guinea on 13 March 2020, though it was several days before it was unambiguously confirmed.

On 17 March the pandemic was declared a national security issue, and a state of emergency came into effect on 24 March.

By coincidence, in the week commencing Monday 16 March, members of one group of landowner beneficiaries associated with the multibillion dollar PNG liquefied natural gas project were arriving in the Western Province town of Kiunga.

They expected to finalise arrangements with officers of the Department of Petroleum and the Mineral Resource Development Company (MRDC) for the receipt of royalty payments. These payments had been held up for more than five years.

The group included people, or the descendants of people, we have known since 1986.

Some of them now lived in Kiunga. Some had come by air or by foot from their home village 110 kilometres to the east. Others had come from Port Moresby.

One of the Port Moresby men – we shall call him Jacko – was employed by MRDC as a liaison officer.

He was a landowner who had relocated from his home village to Port Moresby in the late 2000s as the LNG project became a reality and many people patterned their lives around an expectation of imminent royalty payments.

In Port Moresby, Jacko acquired competence in English, in reading and in both accessing and using digital resources: mobile phone, email, WhatsApp, Facebook, the internet. 

At best, people in his home village had access only to mobile phone connection, with even this, far from reliable.

Jacko lived in and accessed the outside world in ways that were impossible for most of his kin. His learning, and his messages, influenced their understandings.

Kiunga became quiet. Airlines throughout PNG were grounded. Port Moresby residents were now stranded in Kiunga, and Jacko filled his hours exploring the web and posting to Facebook.

Late in the morning on 24 March he posted a simple message: ‘PNG people will not be impacted by Corona virus disease’.

We were concerned that this might be the sort of message he would convey to the village people we knew. Though we seldom do this, we intervened. We wrote:

“Jacko. That is wrong. That is dangerous advice. If you love your friends and family, take this post down. You are spreading false information. People must follow the advice of the PNG health department to help prevent the spread of this dangerous virus that is killing people all over the world.”

Jacko replied:

“Yes, we can advise our PNG People to take extra precautions measure to follow WHO advise from spreading the virus. Bottom line is PNG Christian country which God had placed in the center of the equator where it is consistent with a temperature of up to 26-27 degree Celsius.”

Jacko tells us that God placed the Christian country of PNG at the equator where moderately high temperatures would protect the people from the ravages of the virus. He agrees, however, that it would be sensible to take extra precautions with respect to hygiene.

Jacko then began to reinforce his message. In posts on both 24 and 25 March, ‘COVID’ was decoded as ‘Christ Over Viruses & Infectious Diseases’ and ‘19’ was taken to refer to the biblical verse found at Joshua 1:9: ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’

A search within Facebook suggests several likely sources; a good candidate is the African-focussed missionary site ‘Heaven At Last-Godgift’ which used one of the images reposted by Jacko.

Others that make use of the same ‘translation’ of ‘COVID’ include Redwood City SDA Church which shows graphically how the virus disease curve may be flattened, and fear reduced, by faith.

On 25 March, as well, Jacko reposted a statement by a graduate of the University of Papua New Guinea. That man had confidence that ‘COVID 19 wasn’t meant for us PNGeans’.

He commented that Papua New Guineans had been back and forth to China but the virus had not rapidly entered PNG. He told his Facebook followers to, ‘have faith that we can overcome this COVID 19 pandemic with our All Mighty King…Lord Jesus Christ’.

Clearly, our small intervention failed to shift Jacko’s understandings. Indeed, we may have reinforced them. We should have known better.

Jacko had nothing against hygiene or any other precautionary measures suggested by people with knowledge and authority. Those measures were party to a secular system that had much to offer to the wellbeing and happiness of people.

But Jacko understood also that the wellbeing and happiness of people were contingent on their appreciation and acceptance of the sacred. He may have prioritised the sacred but he gave recognition to both.

The wording of our intervention prioritised the secular without granting recognition to spiritual dimensions.

Yet we had been there before. Thirty-three years earlier, on the bank of the Strickland River, we lived with 25 people at the village of Gwaimasi.

We often saw, or from neighbouring communities heard about, sick people. Some were very sick. In several cases a curing dance was held.

One or two costumed men would dance through the night to the beat of a kundu drum, brushing their sago-frond skirts across the body of the sitting invalid, and drawing the attention of spirits who might come to their aid.

The next morning the sick person might be carried to the mission station – a two-day walk through swamp and rainforest – for treatment by the resident expatriate missionaries or the national community health worker.

It was necessary to be careful in only one detail. Community health workers should not be told that a curing ritual had been performed because, if they learned this had happened, some refused to provide treatment; they saw appeal to customary spirits as challenging their secular expertise.

In the 1980s, people at Gwaimasi were willing to draw on both the secular and sacred in seeking the best health outcome for those whom they loved. There seemed little point in accepting the apparent benefits of modern medicine if one’s spiritual being was out of kilter.

And, ultimately, though he prioritised the latter, Jacko was acting as his own people had done more than three decades earlier. He was saying that it was worth attending to both systems of wellbeing.

It should not be thought that this approach is peculiar to PNG. One of us enjoyed the same experience as a child. When a sibling was ill, her triple-certificated nurse mother took full advantage of both professional medical advice and the local priest blessing the house by sprinkling Lourdes water.

When Jacko’s messages reach his home village, and they will, we hope there is balance in the way they are received.

Remote areas of PNG may be sufficiently isolated that the risk of Covid-19 arriving is low. But customary practices with respect to physical distance within communities, and inadequate health facilities, means that they will be far from ideal places if the virus does arrive.

Far from ideal because in an emergency of this nature, and in places such as this, the state is not equipped to provide any assistance.


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Arthur Williams

At the end of the 1970s, Lavongai Island’s grassroots agricultural co-operative called TIA appointed me the manger of their first and only urban venture.

They had just purchased the Kavieng Freezer from Arthur and Betty Seeto. The couple had spent the last 12 or more years building their small store into possibly the 2nd busiest in town after Burns Philp.

The couple had agreed with TIA that I should spend a month living with them above their store complex.

They were a lovely welcoming pair and made me feel much at home. During the time Betty showed me her trading skills she had honed starting from when as schoolgirl she had amazed the local bank manager by dealing with import documents on behalf her father who was Kavieng’s #1 Chinese.

I was shown the simplest and easiest systems of dealing with the salesmen and the regular orders of best-selling staples from the many East Asian companies that she used for her well stocked store.

“Hong Kong like to sell in big quantities while Singapore will break bulk for your smaller orders. Also I was given the exact items and quantities of the monthly imports of Australian basic groceries and freezer goods to order.

Her knowledgeable advice was excellent and seemed like a verbal exposition of the practicalities of a book which she should have written entitled ‘A PNG Importer’s Guide to Buying in SE Asia & Australia’

One afternoon I went upstairs to get something from the bedroom I was using and was embarrassed to find Betty sitting on a mat with her back to a Sepik labourer who was sat on a cane chair massaging her head in the airy lounge that looked out on the heavily overgrown rows of coconut palms, all that remained of Saunder’s Mongol Plantation.

Any pay Saturday it became the raucous sometime riotous ‘SP Club’. I got what I wanted and quickly left the still busy pair. That evening she felt inclined to tell me the story of what I had seen.

“That was my magic man Arthur. He comes in regularly to fend off the evil spirits that a competitor (named) is using to try and make me ill and spoil our business.”

Just before they went finish she and her husband gave the store’s Toyota Ute, some corrugated roofing iron that until that moment had covered the small carp pond in the tiny back garden of the store and an unknown amount of cash as parting gifts to her magician. I had hoped the vehicle would have come with the store and my job.

Two other things I recall of her departure.

On my last night with them both were in somewhat melancholic mood. As we chatted Betty suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, there he is!” I looked around nobody had joined the three of us.

She pointed at a quite large moth which had flown in through the open louvres of the un-netted windows attracted by the bright lights of the room; one corner of a wing was missing.

“There he is I thought he’d come and see me before I left New Ireland!”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“It’s my brother. We were put in a camp by the Japs. He was injured by American bombers near the end of the war. He died from the wound to a limb. He’s buried down the road.” She seemed to be delighted by this late night visitation.

The other remembrance is when I saw her packing a small shoulder bag that contained her cosmetics and some first-aid items. Into the bag she placed a large jar of snakes’ dried gall bladders. ‘Kas’ the Lavongai called them.

That solved the mystery I’d encountered managing plantations for the Catholic Mission. Why if any of my workers found a snake when working in the fields they would catch it and sell it to some of the Chinese traders in town.

The buyer would dry it thoroughly until it became a small hard ball shaped item. Apparently it can later be grated and added to a cup of water or other liquid and drunk. I have since read it is an ancient Chinese medicine allegedly good for many bodily problems.

Along with that traditional jungle medicine she then added a lot of packets of the most modern medicines then available in the town’s pharmacy.

Betty certainly displayed her beliefs in all things modern and old; both spiritual and physical.

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