PORT MORESBY - The emergency rooms are heaving, health care workers are falling sick, and misinformation about the coronavirus is running rife.
It has all left Papua New Guinea, an island nation just north of Australia, in the grip of a deadly crisis, as a tripling of infections over the past month has swamped an already fragile health care system.
The wave of cases, which the authorities have described as a “major epidemic,” most likely began in February. About 70% of symptomatic patients are testing positive — among the highest rates in the world.
Of the country’s 39 deaths from the virus, 30 have happened in the past six weeks, and the number is expected to swell.
Confirmed infections have passed 4,100, after having remained at zero through June, though the actual number of cases is believed to be far higher.
The toll on health workers has been severe. About 10% of workers have tested positive at the country’s major hospital, in Port Moresby, a city of 380,000 people that has been hit hardest.
In field hospitals, workers, sweating beneath protective equipment, are rushing between beds to tend to the dying.
“We fear that we are going to fill all these beds and then we will have nowhere else to continue to care for Covid patients,” said Mangu Kendino, an emergency physician and the chair of the Covid-19 committee at Port Moresby General Hospital.
“We’re tired, we’re exhausted, we’re fatigued.”
A year into the pandemic, countries around the world are entering a new phase as they vaccinate growing shares of their populations and reopen schools, restaurants and offices.
But the crisis in Papua New Guinea is another reminder that the global emergency is far from over — that the virus will continue to wreak havoc and sow death until the entire world is vaccinated, a prospect that may be years away.
The situation in the island nation is exactly what public health experts have warned of as wealthy countries buy up the world’s vaccine stockpiles and put the pandemic largely behind them, while smaller and poorer nations are left with cap in hand.
After having largely avoided severe outbreaks for many months, Papua New Guinea is now experiencing harrowing scenes not unlike those in Italy early in the pandemic. This month, one patient, suffering an asthma attack, died in a hospital parking lot.
“They have challenges accessing health care at the best of times,” said Rob Mitchell, an emergency physician specializing in triage in the Pacific.
“I fear that the current case numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”