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Misinformation fuels Covid surge in PNG

Covid testing in Port Moresby (Matt Cannon  St John's Ambulance PNG)
Covid testing in Port Moresby (Matt Cannon St John's Ambulance PNG)

| CoronaCheck | RMIT ABC Fact Check

MELBOURNE - As a wave of coronavirus cases in PNG threatens to spill over into Australia, experts are sounding a warning about online misinformation in the Pacific nation.

Amnesty International has lambasted Australia and New Zealand for what the group's Pacific researcher, Kate Schuetze, called a "woefully inadequate" response to the pandemic.

"Papua New Guinea's health crisis has now reached the level we feared it would a year ago with a surge in cases," Ms Schuetze said.

"A combination of an ailing health system and inadequate living has created a perfect storm for Covid-19 to thrive in the country's overcrowded informal settlements."

She added that misinformation within the PNG community was "rife", and that there had been suggestions that the pandemic was a "government conspiracy".

"This has also been fuelled by the government at times publishing inaccurate information on the number of confirmed cases.

“There is no effective public information campaign by the government to dispel the misinformation."

Meanwhile, the senior gynaecologist at Port Moresby General Hospital, Professor Glen Mola, took to Facebook to vent his frustration at "misinformation, wrong ideas and conspiracy theories" circulating in the Pacific nation.

"Sorry, getting a bit frustrated here with some of my compatriots," Professor Mola wrote.

"Health workers are risking their lives to continue to provide health services, and many people are just spending their time on screens accusing us of unethical practice, criminal and corrupt misuse of government funds and putting forward false, ridiculous, unfounded conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence."

Among the debunked misinformation listed by Professor Mola were suggestions the pandemic was a hoax, that Covid-19 was no worse than a seasonal flu and that home remedies such as lemon tea would protect against the virus.

Australia's High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Jon Philp, also weighed in during a radio interview with the ABC last week.

"There's a lot of denial," Mr Philp said in reference to the current outbreak.

"There is a lot of bad information out on social media [saying] that Covid-19 doesn't exist or that Papua New Guineans are generally immune for one reason or another. There are lots of conspiracy theories."

Mr Philp said a major media and social media campaign was being funded in order to combat the onslaught of misinformation and to show that "there really is such a thing as Covid-19 and people are dying from it".

He added that conquering vaccine hesitancy would be a "big battle".

According to misinformation researchers, some Papuan New Guineans were questioning their government's agenda in rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine, while others saw the Australian government's donation of 8,000 AstraZeneca jabs as a way of using the Pacific nation's citizens as ‘lab rats’.

In response, PNG's prime minister, James Marape, assured citizens he would be the first person to get the vaccine, with justice minister Bryan Kramer saying he would also be vaccinated in order to "dispel the false and misleading statements spread by a handful of people about the vaccine"


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Philip Kai Morre

Conspiracy theory is a symptom of a sick and ignorant society which lacks scientific or medical knowledge.

Most conspiracy theorists are religious fanatics trying to explain something that does not exist. Coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease it brings are real and require quick intervention.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Sometimes the wantok system is blamed for things that are not related to it.

The system is breaking down everywhere but especially in the cities and towns where people of mixed heritage predominate.

The old ironclad system that prevailed before and just after independence no longer applies in many areas.

What does apply however is the mistrust of government, politicians and public servants. When the government announces a new initiative the ordinary Papua New Guinean mind looks for the scam before anything else.

And, as I said, there is good reason for this.

We now learn that a senior public servant in the health department part owns a company that has been given a lucrative catering contract for Covid-19 venues that appears to have occurred after a rigged tendering process.

Stephen Charteris

Sadly, I agree with Phil.

Wouldn’t call it distrust so much as irrelevance. Since when did a villager take to heart the word of someone not related to them, let alone someone who doesn’t speak their 'tok ples'. Outsiders have always been irrelevant.

If there is to be a major media campaign let us hope it includes resources for enabling local opinion leaders or at least locally respected individuals to lead information campaigns in their respective areas.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news circulating among the public and on social media in Papua New Guinea about Covid-19 and vaccines is perfectly understandable when you consider one fact - the people of Papua New Guinea don't trust their government, their politicians or their leaders.

And they have plenty of reasons for that.

That the pandemic might be a hoax perpetuated by the government for some sinister reason would be a perfectly sensible stance to take if it wasn't so serious.

This unhelpful trend is entirely the government's own fault. If successive Papua New Guinean governments hadn't been so corrupt and inefficient over the years the problem wouldn't be there.

Papua New Guinea is not alone in this, it's happening in Australia, the USA and many other countries.

It's just super pronounced in Papua New Guinea because distrust of the government there is super charged.

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