NOOSA – Late last week Papua New Guinea cried out for international emergency medical teams to assist its operations to fight Covid-19.
PNG police commissioner and emergency controller David Manning issued the alert after the number of Covid-19 cases in PNG more than doubled last week to an official figure of 39, with the bulk of those recorded at Port Moresby general hospital and centred on the infectious diseases unit.
Thirty doesn't seem too many in a country of eight million people and there is no unofficial estimate for Covid-19’s impact in PNG but a figure of many hundreds of people infected throughout the country would be probably nearer the mark than 30.
No deaths have been registered but this figure must also be dubious given the overall lack of health statistics in PNG.
Australia claims to have been providing Covid-19 assistance to PNG since at least April, but again reliable facts and figures are hard to come by.
PNG prime minister James Marape has warned that the health system does not "have the capacity to deal with a widespread outbreak" and Manning’s recent plea for assistance indicates that Covid-19 has reached a critical state.
In May, health minister Jelta Wong said his government and the World Health Organisation were “working around the clock” on combatting the disease.
But this is 'press release talk' and cannot be taken seriously.
Certainly the Australian government has provided some medical supplies and personnel over recent months (although it seems that many personnel were withdrawn) but, unlike promotional photos which are easy to find, detail on the quantity, value and the extent of this assistance is impossible to obtain.
However the latest outbreak of Covid-19 at Port Moresby’s main hospital - especially in the infectious diseases domain - seems to have lit a fire under the issue and the shout of ‘emergency’ strongly suggests that the era of rhetoric about Australia’s Covid-19 assistance to PNG may be over.
And, as we have come expect whenever money meets PNG, there is a scandal.
Within the country, there has been public outrage and a complementary government information vacuum surrounding the dispersal of millions of kina ear-marked for Covid-19, the strong suggestion being that funds have been stolen or siphoned off.
And now, after a bump in Covid-19 cases in Port Moresby, it seems the alarm bells are ringing loudly and the time for saccharine media statements and posed photos might be over.
On Friday, health secretary Dr Paison Dakulala was reported to have said that people who had tested positive for Covid-19 had been at large in the city and there was concern about wider transmission.
Marape also announced new measures to combat spread will be introduced over the next two weeks.
"Instead of having a hard approach, we are trying to stage it,” Marape said. “We will be telling our citizens what to do in the next two weeks.
"Hopefully the picture of where Covid-19 is in the city comes out clear and then we can have these localised strategies."
It all sounded somewhat half-baked and less than convincing.
The new measures are said to include police and soldiers deployed to Port Moresby, limitations on business and social activities, more testing, travel restrictions, banning groups of more than 100 people, closing nightclubs and instituting an approval system for sporting events.
Manning said markets, restaurants and churches could continue so long as they complied with health protocols such as social distancing. It will be compulsory for people to wear face masks in public.
Through the murk of spin, hope, aspiration, smiley pics and ‘we're great’ press releases, it's impossible to clarify what is happening in PNG's fight against Covid-19 and what role Australia is playing in assisting to determine the spread of the disease and the extent of measures adopted to combat it.
This, however, should come as no surprise to Australians who themselves are increasingly confounded by the contradictory, confusing and ever-changing measures being employed in its own borders, and borders within borders, to deal with the spread of the disease.