WAIGANI - Many residents of Port Moresby’s settlements believe Covid-19 is a hoax used by opportunistic government officials to embezzle public funds.
The PNG National Research Institute (NRI) surveyed perceptions of residents of 10 settlements and found more than three-quarters of respondents thought the pandemic was dubious and an excuse for corruption.
One person told researchers, “Covid-19 is fake, a scam by some government officials who used it to get more money for themselves and make us suffer using the police to control us”, while another called the disease “a cover-up for the government to access money.”
Further suspicions were raised in October last year by a Marape government to handover K10.2 million to an unheralded medical research company, Niugini Biomed Ltd.
At a bizarre press conference, Biomed officials claimed could deliver an internationally saleable Covid treatment from existing drugs.
Notwithstanding the group’s claim that the task that would receive divine assistance and much prompting in social media, there have been no further details released by Niugini Biomed and certainly no jab.
With the global Covid death toll now closing in on two million people, there is no doubt the pandemic is not a hoax.
PNG has recorded only 823 cases and nine deaths, but the complete picture is obscured by limited testing and poor reporting further obscured by opaque public communication.
It is in this information vacuum that rumours about hoaxes spread quickly, although it could be that speculation about community transmission hotspots around PNG may be firmly grounded in fact.
Whatever the health situation, the people of Port Moresby, like those in cities around the world, have felt the pandemic’s flow on effects, including lockdowns and economic hardship.
This has worsened the livelihoods of many people who already struggle through each day with informal work and uncertain living circumstances.
More than 90% of respondents to the NRI survey said their income had at least halved as a result of lockdowns and one in ten had suffered periods of homelessness.
It was stated that most people in the settlements were unable to adapt to restrictions, which were impractical in the local context.
“We cannot afford facemasks,” one respondent said, “and at the same time we live in a congested environment which makes it difficult to practice social distancing.”
Harsh police enforcement of restrictions has further damaged the already low trust in government.
About 10% of people surveyed complained that police used lockdowns as an opportunity for harassment and brutality.
“The government failed to manage the police and they destroyed our markets and stole our money,” one person said.
While settlement residents’ disbelief in Covid is not true, their barometer for corruption seems to be spot on.