PORT MORESBY – Last Tuesday the Papua New Guinea parliament extended the coronavirus state of emergency for another two weeks to provide time to pass a new piece of legislation – the Public Health Emergency Bill - that will control how people live in that condition known as the ‘new normal’.
Many people felt the extension was unnecessary, especially when all eight people officially tested positive to Covid-19 have recovered and no new cases detected.
The feeling is that prolonged restriction on people’s movements will lead to public disorder.
Arriving in Port Moresby from Wabag a few days ago, I noticed the city had quickly reverted back to the ‘old normal’.
This was evident all over the place - at the main markets, bus stops, in front of shops and in residential areas.
Buai (betel nut), soft drinks and loose cigarettes were being sold everywhere, even before the first emergency period expired. No police of security force officer was bothering to impose orders.
I wondered if National Capital District governor Powes Parkop, who had advocated the state of emergency to be extended for another two months, saw what was happening on the streets.
Parkop is one of the best performing governors in PNG but people didn’t seem to appreciate his efforts to keep safe and beautify the nation’s capital.
While most people on the street were acting ‘old normal’, it was strange to see others wearing masks and practising social distancing in major shops, hotels and airports.
But that’s how everybody should behave in a time of pandemic. Covid-19 is here to stay and a deadlier second wave could hit PNG.
I pondered whether many people were intentionally not respecting authority or defying emergency orders out of necessity – to fend for food. Or did they think the disease belonged someplace else and not here in PNG?
Before I flew to the national capital, the scene was the same in the major highlands towns of Wabag and Mt Hagen.
Imagine the number of pigs killed to appease dead relatives if the coronavirus had swept through those Enga valleys, wiping out people mostly isolated from the rest of the world.
If it was a dreaded frost, they could escape to lowland areas in search of food. But there would be no escape from this new plague.
They would respond to the onslaught by killing pigs to placate the instigators, the causers of the disease - their dead relatives.
People believe that all sicknesses are caused by dead relatives. They need to offer pig sacrifices to appease malevolent spirits.
I sat in a room in a small lodge under lockdown in Port Moresby when I heard that a mine worker travelling from Spain had been tested positive in Lae on Wednesday 13 March. PNG’s first known case of Covid-19.
This news triggered the powerful memory of how, when as a child, I fell ill with fever and a pig was killed to appease my dead uncle, Perawua.
Yambau Piuwi, the village magician, was called to diagnose my illness. He performed a ritual to find out the cause.
First, he cut hair from our prized pig, tied it in a bundle and burned one end. It gave off a terrible smell.
Then he kept spitting into some kapano tree leaves. He yawned and seemed to be in a trance.
When Yambau Piuwi handed me the foul, smouldering bundle of pig’s hair, there was relief in the semi-dark living room of the family home.
This was the sign that the spirit of my dead uncle, Perawua, had let go of me.
The magician proclaimed that the cause of my illness was Perauwa, who wanted us to offer him our black sow as a sacrifice.
It was mandated that the black sow must be killed at the mouth of a new spring spouting from the ground in the new garden my father was clearing.
So poor Pisa the black sow was led to slaughter and offered to a spirit that lived in the spring. I don’t know if it was because of the sacrifice, but I soon recovered.
That was in the early sixties before I went to school. My younger brother, Nuamb, had died suddenly and my father didn’t want me to die too. He felt compelled to kill our prized pig.
So would the Enga people try to stop the coronavirus onslaught by offering pigs in an attempt to remain alive until only a few lucky ones were left.
When people kept dying even as pig sacrifices were offered, the people could not explain the curse. It would remain an unexplained black hole in their primitive minds.
They wouldn’t know that the pandemic was caused by a virus from the Chinese city of Wuhan and was infecting millions and killing tens of thousands of people throughout a world they hardly knew.
But in this modern era, most people understand how the disease was transmitted, how they can prevent it and how to respond if they are infected by the virus,
Thus far, PNG has been lucky and nobody has died. Makeshift isolation units built mostly by aid donor agencies remain empty.
The eight people initially tested positive have recovered and no more new cases have been reported, officially at least, although the East Sepik has just reported 50 cases of people with antibodies.
Our country appears to be lucky because many of the eight million people – with 80% living in rural areas mostly without good health services or even basic medicines - could easily have been affected.
Our health workers are ill-prepared for a pandemic of such magnitude. Some weeks ago nurses went on strike demanding protective equipment and supplies before they went on the frontline to attend to the sick.
In PNG and other Pacific Island states, there have been about 300 cases and seven deaths. But Pacific Islanders remain largely untouched by the global pandemic.
By yesterday there had been 6.8 million cases of Covid-19 reported worldwide and nearly 400,000 deaths. Nearly one-third of these casualties were from the USA whose death toll now stands at 111,000 and counting.
Here in PNG, I should keep thanking God more than I did when I was locked up in that small lodge in Port Moresby.
I had been ready to go to Wabag when the government imposed the state of emergency.
I was looking forward to sharing some memorable experiences with my children of my first ever visit to Manus via Kavieng. Once again I saw some beautiful locations suitable for tourism in my country.
I also wanted to share some fresh fish I brought from Manus with a Manusian neighbour, Michael Yahu, a long-time public servant who came to Enga as a 16-year old and worked and lived there all his life until he retired four years ago.
Michael has complained many times that his retirement benefits were not paid due to financial problems in the country.
He was planning to build a new house when he went back to Manus. But now it seems he will never go back thanks to Covid-19. He will continue to live in a government house in Wabag, the same house he has lived in for decades.
It looks like he might even die in that house. His son who died there a couple of years ago.
Michael was lucky the Covid-19 virus did not affect PNG badly, otherwise senior citizens like him could have easily fallen victim as in other parts of the world.
I too discovered my limitations as a simple human being. On Monday 23 March, I managed to get on the last plane to Mt Hagen at about 5 pm but we could not land at Kagamuga Airport because the cloud cover was too thick late that afternoon.
I was in a window seat and saw nothing. The plane was white and it disappeared into white emptiness. And it was raining. I had family and friends waiting to receive me down there but I couldn’t tell the pilot to land.
When the captain pumped the engines to full throttle and aimed the plane towards heaven after many attempts to land, I knew we were heading back to Port Moresby.
I prayed in my heart, ‘God now we are in your hands. Take us back safely.’ I don’t pray often but I prayed that Monday up in the sky.
It was also raining in Moresby but we landed safely around 7 pm. I asked a wantok to pick me up and gave him the cooler box full of fish from Manus that I had intended to take home. His wife from Madang could make good use of it.
Then I asked him to drive me back to the same lodge to be holed up for the next two weeks.
The lady living next door to the lodge continued to pray every morning as she had done before. She pleaded with God to take this pestilence away from PNG because the people are innocent and had done to deserve this virus.
Alone in her house, she prayed and sang worship songs in Tok Pisin and the Enga language. Even though the family was large, nobody else in her house ever joined in her prayers.
She always woke me up around 3am every morning as she started praying aloud. I guessed she was a member of one of the charismatic denominations.
Her voice was clear and the neighbours across the street must have heard her too.
I don’t know what they thought but there was some truth in her prayers when she pleaded with God that the people were innocent.
She asked God for his divine mercy because the ordinary people of PNG didn’t deserve to be afraid of coronavirus and die from it if it spread.
I heard her pray that coronavirus is a foreign disease as is AIDS, tuberculosis, SARS, sexually transmitted infections and many other diseases.
They are foreign imports. Like corruption and high-powered guns are all foreign. The innocent people suffer. They can’t do much but hope and pray that the disease will not affect them.
When I finally did get back to Wabag, I saw people still selling buai at Pawas market next to Wabag General Hospital. The buai was smuggled from the Sepik through Yengis on bush tracks over the mountains.
Everywhere else in town was the ‘old normal’ - people congregating, laughing, chewing buai, hugging as always without a care in the world.
Then a couple of days ago I came to Port Moresby where I also noticed the ‘old normal’ was creeping back. Oy seemed the authorities were either exhausted or had simply failed to enforce the rules and regulations of the state of emergency.
I believe there should not be another extension of the emergency after the current two-week extension lapses.
People should be set free but told to follow protocols, work hard and plant food like people have been doing for generations. The world economic crisis as a result of Covid-19 will affect everybody in PNG.
If the tiny virus hasn’t killed anybody in PNG, hunger will. People must always be vigilant and stand guard as these are not the ‘old normal’ times of our ancestors.
People must join the lady next door and pray every morning at 3am and thank God that PNG remains Covid-19 free.
It’s almost like the Bible story in Exodus when the Lord passed through to strike Egyptians.
As he saw blood on the lintel and the two doorsteps, He passed over the door and did not allow the destroyer (the Angel of Death) to go into the houses to strike the occupants. That’s Exodus 12:23 in the King James Bible.
This is what seems to have happened in PNG, a Christian country even if full of corruption.
Perhaps it’s a wake-up call for people to change their attitudes and for leaders to avoid corruption and provide honest and transparent leadership.
People in authority should earn people’s respect, trust and confidence and realign the country to progress in the ‘new normal’. Whatever that means.