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Health system unprepared for virus

| Australia Associate Director, Human Rights Watch

SYDNEY - Even before the coronavirus, the fragile health system in Papua New Guinea was underfunded and overwhelmed, with high rates of malaria, tuberculosis, and diabetes among its population of more than eight million.

Access to hospitals is extremely limited, with 80% of the population living outside urban centres.

Prime Minister James Marape has acknowledged the country has only 500 doctors, less than 4,000 nurses, and around 5,000 beds in hospitals and health centres. The country reportedly has only 14 ventilators. A Covid-19 outbreak would be catastrophic.

To date, there have been two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in PNG. It could be that PNG will be spared the scale of the pandemic seen elsewhere such as Wuhan, a dense urban area with a mobile and older population.

But Police Minister Bryan Kramer has acknowledged the country has a limited capacity to test people, raising concerns that the actual number of cases is higher.

Despite Marape’s assurances that personal protective equipment would be made available to health workers, the Ministry of Health released a situation report on 13 March detailing chronic deficiencies, as well as inadequate training on use of such equipment and infection prevention and control.

Nurses across the country have threatened to strike over the lack of basic medical supplies. In Lae, health workers protested over a lack of preparedness and demanded more information about the virus.

Some doctors told The Guardian that they are forbidden from speaking with the media under PNG’s state of emergency powers. While the emergency powers do not expressly prohibit health workers from speaking publicly, PNG’s police commissioner has warned that anyone spreading “false” or “unsanctioned” information during the Covid-19 state of emergency will be prosecuted.

On 2 April, the PNG parliament voted to extend the 14-day state of emergency for two months.

Under international human rights law, governments should ensure that people have access to information. That means that medical staff should be able to speak up and provide accurate and timely information about the pandemic and how to limit transmission.

The PNG government, with support from donor governments like Australia and New Zealand, should take urgent steps to ensure that information is accessible, that personal protective equipment is provided to health care workers, and that affordable and accessible medical care is available to protect PNG’s poorest and most vulnerable people.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

There still isn't a vaccine for SARS Lindsay. That's after 14 years. It could come back and then what would we do?

Maybe there won't be a vaccine for Covid-19 developed either.

Lindsay F Bond

Good to see Joseph positive about PNG capabilities, even preparedness.

Not so for folk elsewhere researching capability for wider preparedness.

Thus, in research of a vaccine for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) there were 'testing times' and today, for Sars-COVID-19, more to attest.


Joseph Minji

I fail to see the message in this piece. How come our population has more than doubled since Independence?

In spite of the doom and gloom this writer paints in his opening three paragraphs, ask him to come up here and visit our main hospitals in the urban centres.

I live in my village near Banz Town in Jiwaka Province in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea.

We are at best and have been observing the Coronavirus or Covid-19 triggered and induced nationwide SOE from Monday 23 March and have become used to self-isolation and such.

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