Confusion surrounds Covid-19 fight in PNG
PNG hospitals brace for Covid-19 surge

Covid emergency cannot fix years of neglect

Nurse sits at a screening station in East New Britain (Kalo Fainu  The Guardian)
Nurse sits at a screening station in East New Britain (Kalo Fainu/ The Guardian)

MICHAEL KABUNI
| Asia & Pacific Policy Society | Edited extracts

PORT MORESBY – Papua New Guinea has registered 39 positive Covid-19 cases, most of them in the last week, leading to the reinstatement of a range of measures to limit the spread of the disease as a second lockdown is imposed.

PNG’s reliance on a state of emergency and lockdowns to contain Covid-19 is proving difficult due to years of government negligence that have led to both poor health infrastructure and limited police and military capabilities, including the ability to adequately police unauthorised movements across PNG’s borders.

The first Covid-19 case was an Australian man who entered PNG on 13 March 2020 from Spain. More recently a disturbing cluster has centred on the infectious diseases laboratory at Port Moresby General Hospital.

Other cases have been detected in East New Britain, Goroka and at Daru at the southern end of the PNG–Indonesia border.

The cases of local transmission in Western Province — despite the restrictions on travel and the military deployed along the borders — point to an ineffective monitoring of provincial borders, which was intended to restrict internal travel as well as travel between PNG and Indonesia, and highlight how a long-neglected health system could be put to the ultimate test during the pandemic.

At the time of writing, Indonesia has about 97,000 positive Covid-19 cases and more than 4,700 deaths. This is a concern for PNG because people frequently cross their shared border for trade and cultural reasons.

ANU researchers Johni Robert V Korwa and Barrisen Rumabar have estimated that at one of the access points in Skuow alone, about 300–400 Papua New Guineans a week cross the border into West Papua.

Indonesian products and services are cheaper than in PNG. If prices in PNG continue to rise due to Covid-19, it may lead to more border crossing to access cheaper alternatives in Indonesia.

Those who legally cross the border use the traditional border card, but for years smugglers have allegedly brought guns and ammunition from Indonesia across the border to Vanimo and taken them to the Highlands provinces of PNG.

In 2018, PNG’s military intelligence reported that the influx of automatic weapons into the Highlands of PNG was coming from Indonesia.

There are at least eight illegal entry points along the 720-kilometre PNG–Indonesia border, running from Wutung in West Sepik to Bawani, Imonda, Amanab, Green River, Yapsie, Yumolbil, Telefomin and Daru in Western Province.

At most times, these entry points are unmanned, and even during the lockdown people were criss-crossing the border to sell vanilla and other commodities in Indonesia.

The lack of investment in securing PNG’s borders also extends to its seas, where a loss of about K500 million in fisheries revenues was reported in 2018 due to illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing. Breaches in the border are attributed to low manpower as well as lack of investment in equipment.

The PNG Defence White Paper of 2013 aimed to increase the defence force from 2,000 to 5,000 over the next four years. By 2017, however, the total number only reached 4,000, and defence force chief of staff Colonel Raymond Numa said of the objectives of the Defence White Paper could not be met due, in part, to a lack of funding.

Even now, those deployed to regulate the border report a lack of funding impeding their operations.

Much has already been written about PNG’s broken-down health system and its lack of necessary equipment to fight Covid-19.

PNG has 500 medical doctors, fewer than 4,000 nurses, around 5,000 beds in hospitals and health centres and only 14 ventilators.

Prime minister James Marape has admitted this is a result of years of neglect of the health system. At the very beginning of the pandemic, nurses protested the establishment of isolation wards within the same hospitals where non-Covid-19 patients were being treated.

When PNG’s second case was reported in East New Britain, doctors and nurses refused to attend to the patient because of a lack of personal protective equipment.

At one point, PNG ran out of testing equipment and sent samples to Australia for testing until more test kits arrived.

That PNG’s cases are spread across five provinces that are very far apart is a cause for concern as there is no way of knowing how far the virus may have extended.

Only people who have shown symptoms of Covid-19 and are able to access hospitals that have the capacity to collect samples for testing, and those who have come into contact with infected patients, are being tested.

PNG would have been much better prepared to deal with Covid-19 if, over the years, it had invested more in the necessary health infrastructure, defence and related equipment for border protection.

Relying on the state of emergency and lockdowns in the midst of the pandemic does not compensate for the structural weaknesses that are the result of years of insufficient expenditure.

Michael Kabuni is a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Papua New Guinea

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