PETER D DWYER PhD
MELBOURNE - In October last year a team of Papua New Guinea university scientists asserted that they had developed a package of already known drugs that would cure Covid-19.
There were no publications, there had been no tests but they had convinced prime minister James Marape that they were on to a good thing.
Marape recommended through the National Executive Council that their newly registered company, Niugini Biomed Ltd, be awarded K10.2 million.
There was much negative comment on social media and, it seems, much back-pedalling in government circles.
When the grant was finally approved in November it was channeled toward rebuilding laboratories at the university and not directly to the directors of Niugini Biomed Ltd.
In mid-January a small Tok Pisin item on ABC News revealed that the grant had not yet been awarded because, the health minister said it was necessary to follow the proper process.
Opposition leader Belden Namah is right to ask about the state of play with respect to the promised K10.2 million and what was almost certainly a nonsensical assertion that a cure for Covid-19 (not a vaccine) had been found by PNG university scientists.
He is also right to ask the government to provide a comprehensive report on all aspects of the pandemic, including expenditure, in PNG.
The Office of the Controller of the National Pandemic Response oversees a very informative website with regular updates of cases and with summary situation reports at intervals of two weeks.
For several months, however, the government has remained distanced from Covid-19 concerns.
Marape himself has been silent since the apparent embarrassment of the publicised grant to Niugini Biomed Ltd.
His silence may be particularly significant with respect to vaccination.
As elsewhere in the world, there are people in PNG who voice strong opposition to the need for, or the desirability of, Covid-19 vaccination.
Some of that opposition is based in nonsensical conspiracy theories.
Some is based in pessimistic interpretations of the cautionary tales that come from informed sources.
At present, in PNG, however, some of the antagonism to vaccines and vaccination is tangled up with negative responses to what Australia or some Australians seem to be doing.
Many in PNG have been unimpressed by the Australian response to news of a Chinese-developed fisheries industrial park in Daru.
On Western Province social media correspondents ask ("Who authorised Australia to force C19 vaccine on PNG? PNG People Must Refuse This Now!") or comment ("We aren't guinea pigs or aren't primitives").
Or Ben Packham, reporter with The Australian, fails to do his homework before posting to Twitter that he’s "hearing PNG PM James Marape is in isolation with suspected COVID-19 infection".
Marape, who did not have Covid-19, reposted the ‘fake news’ to his own Facebook page and received 84 comments, including:
"Another propaganda to introduce Covid-19 vaccine to PNG".
"It's typical bullshit from Australian Ben Packham. Australia has its agenda to control a sovereign nation that they care less about rather than which they do to benefit its own interests."
Like opposition leaders everywhere (in countries where there are opposition leaders), Belden Namah has mixed sensible statements of government failures with uninformed statements about risks associated with Covid-19 and vaccination.
There are, however, many thoughtful voices and images appearing on social media.
In the past few days, photographs of two boat loads of people searching for bodies along the Ok Tedi village and nearly everyone is wearing a face mask.
A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist who is "tired of listening and reading about all kinds of conspiracy theories against vaccinations" puts up his "hands to be one of the first ones to be vaccinated if Covid-19 vaccine becomes available in PNG".
And "my family and I will get vaccinated for Covid-19. For those dumb educated anti-vaxers, if you don’t want to get vaccinated that’s your goddamn business. Don’t force your useless scam views on us who have chosen to remain quiet".
There are many voices and many sensible opinions out there. They need support.
It is time for PM Marape and his government to speak up.
They should respond to the sensible matters raised by Namah.
They should be in the forefront of providing informed and sensible advice to the people.
Through much of 2020, PM Marape communicated often and well about the progress of, and responses to, Covid-19 in PNG.
Then he went quiet.
It would be good if, once again, he took a leading and positive role in what remains a very serious matter.
Talking about vaccination would be good place to start.
Dr Peter Dwyer is an anthropologist and zoologist, an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne and a former Reader in Zoology at the University of Queensland. Between the 1970s and 2014, Dr Dwyer conducted fieldwork at different times with highland and interior lowland people in Papua New Guinea - Kubo, Febi, Konai and Bedamuni - initially focusing on documentation of land use, agriculture and social change