PORT MORESBY - In early 1987 the first case of HIV/AIDs was reported in Papua New Guinea.
I had just started as a young reporter with New Nation, a youth magazine published by Word Publishing Company.
It was a very frightening period for me. Coming from the countryside of East Sepik and then Madang, the city was a new thing for me. The cars moved too fast and the streets were scary.
I had to do street beats and listen to people talk about HIV/AIDs. This took me to hotspots in Port Moresby.
Sometimes I would come to my then editor, Julia Daia Bore, in tears and tell her know I couldn’t do it.
She would listen and take me out for buai or lunch and then let me continue. Sometimes she would accompany me.
When I look back where did the fear come from? The first level was my own fear of the unknown environment in which this disease was present. The second level came from the people themselves. They would run at the first mention of ‘AIDS’.
There was not a lot of information out there in the first few months of the first reported case and the media headlines were not enough to help people understand what HIV/AIDs was.
In some towns people wouldn’t get on the buses said to have carried a suspect in fear that the virus may be left on the seats.
Others would not shake hands or receive food or items given them by hand.
Many communities wouldn’t go close to those who came home with HIV/AIDs.
Some families left sick people in pig houses and forgot to feed them or just left them to die.
Others ridiculed them and wouldn’t give them the dignity of proper burials when they died.
In the home, HIV/AIDs gave a new reason for domestic violence. Husbands blamed wives for having extra marital affairs. Some families lost both father and mother and children were left orphaned.
So, at a time when there was not a lot of information, where did we start?
Some people had to work fast to inform the rest before combat strategies could be put in place. In those days there was no Facebook.
The churches tried to help and, God bless their hearts, they messed up terribly in messaging. How do they communicate a disease without using language forbidden by the church? How do they advocate for strategies not accepted or promoted by the church? ‘Condom’ was the forbidden word.
A medical doctor on television tried to help and received a lot of criticism especially from young people.
The NGOs worked hard and, with churches and government, pulled information together. The community messages about HIV/AIDs became clearer but it took a long time.
After years of testing and trialling messages, training, communication and media strategies, the information about HIV/AIDs became clear and communities started to understand and care.
Crisis and pandemics present opportunities to learn and process information and messages for our people.
Is Covid-19 an opportunity to shift gears or make a turn? There is a lot of uncertainty and quick fixes must be put in place, but we are learning. We’re learning about the disease and how to avoid it.
There is a lot of fear at the moment. Many people want to know right now. Many play with words and confuse those they interact with.
Some people have started making home-made face masks and sanitisers. For small businesses it is an opportunity for innovation and creation and making use of vocational skills and developing products for the market.
Other people are changing their purchasing patterns or daily routines and are becoming more conscious of their hygiene and nutrition. Hand washing is picking up and local foods and cooking methods are appreciated.
Someone said once that fear is temporary. It is true.
See how the fear of HIV/AIDs has gone. People are more aware now. HIV/AIDs created awareness about sexual behaviour but also about better health care and nutrition.
Covid-19 is here and it is reminding us of our health practices and the local remedies of natural organic food.
Covid-19 is hitting us hard in the face about our hygiene – wash hands frequently, cough and sneeze into elbows, stay away from people with symptoms. Hand washing has been advocated for many years but people did not pick up the need.
It is a good practice to fear less and listen more. If we talk less and listen and read more we will learn. If we listen with a critical ear we will start to change behaviour and things will be much better for us.
We have lessons from past we can learn from but Covid-19 will require a lot of help from within ourselves and from outside. Let us work together to win this.