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James Marape
James Marape says PNG's health system cannot deal with a widespread outbreak of coronavirus (AAP)

LYANNE TOGIBA & BEN DOHERTY
| Guardian Australia| Judith Nielson Institute

PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinea’s Covid-19 outbreak could overwhelm its health system within days, the country’s pandemic chief has warned, as masks have been made compulsory in the capital, and the government has called in the World Health OrganiSation and the military for help.

PNG’s pandemic response controller David Manning said a dedicated isolation unit established in Port Moresby to treat Covid-19 could soon be overwhelmed if current infections trends continue.

The largest number of infections are of healthcare workers who have been working in a Covid-19 testing lab and been exposed.

“The capacity at the [capital’s] emergency ward for isolation is 70,” Manning said, “and with the current rate of infection per day and using increased testing modelling, this has the potential to be reached by the end of this month.”

The PNG government has asked the WHO for help, saying there was “an urgent need” for emergency health workers to assist the country in managing a forecast surge in cases, and to administer isolation facilities.

“We are also discussing with the PNG defence force to assist [and] the health department. We have always said we don’t have adequate facilities,” Manning said.

The governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, told Australia’s ABC that the capital faced “a situation that we dreaded, simply because of the impact of the virus and also our capacity to respond.

“We simply don’t have the capacity, we don’t have enough space in isolation facilities, in the hospital, we don’t have enough medical officers and we don’t have enough equipment,” he said.

By global standards, PNG’s known Covid-19 infections remain low - with just 39 confirmed cases - but it has trebled in just over a week.

There are also significant concerns that infection rates are far higher than reported because of low testing rates, particularly in remote areas. Manning conceded that outside Port Moresby testing has been “very limited”.

A nationwide testing sweep during the country’s declared state of emergency found at least 300 people with Covid-19 antibodies: it appears they have had the disease and recovered.

Covid-19 has been linked to only one death in PNG, that of a 48-year-old woman suffering stage four cancer. Doctors said she died with the novel coronavirus and her death “may have been complicated by Covid-19”.

PNG had gone more than a month without reporting any new cases of Covid, before two major clusters, first at the country’s military headquarters, Murray Barracks, and then at Port Moresby general hospital.

Eight of the country’s cases are healthcare workers at the hospital laboratory where tests are conducted, while a further eight are the family members and close contacts of those workers.

Prime minister James Marape has ordered an inquiry into why so many healthcare workers were becoming infected.

“All healthcare workers are supposed to be equipped and all health facilities have been supplied with personal protective equipment. Something went wrong somewhere and they became exposed,” he said.

Marape announced masks would be compulsory outside the home in Port Moresby, a city where more than half of the nearly 500,000 population live in densely crowded unofficial settlements where social distancing is difficult.

“The national government will partner with the national capital district commission and the churches to ensure all our city residents are supplied masks for use when they are moving around,” Marape said.

He said officials were “not playing games or fun, neither politics nor business” and that the global outbreak – already surpassing 15m infections, and 600,000 deaths – was “rising every day”.

“Coronavirus is present in the country, more so our nation’s capital city and we must be careful. It is the most infectious of diseases and can be easily transmitted so all persons living in PNG must join in this fight to stop Covid-19 from spreading.”

Manning also announced new social distancing restrictions under the controversial National Health Emergency Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to restrict movement and activity.

The latest tranche has imposed an immediate ban on gatherings of over 100 people, and the closure of all nightclubs and sporting clubs. Religious services are allowed to continue but must comply with health protocols

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