Social safety net saves us, but we need more
Daru – the town the good life left behind

Covid & misinformation unnerve us in PNG

Bernadette Yakopa
Bernadette Yakopa - "Papua New Guineans are resilient people, but this is something different altogether"

| Australian Broadcasting Corporation

DARU - Here in Western Province in Papua New Guinea, a stone's throw from the Australian mainland, things are looking alarming.

Cases and deaths from coronavirus are skyrocketing, and we are facing a misinformation pandemic on top of a Covid one.

Most Papua New Guineans get their information from Facebook, and much of it is incorrect.

Our social media has been overwhelmed with half-truths, misinformation, and outright lies. False statements are dressed up in intellectual language.

A seemingly harmless like or share doesn't stay online: it filters down to village and family levels where misinformation is retold as fact, or at the very least, speculation.

Woman, two children and two men face camera in front of house.

I live with six others in Port Moresby, which is at the centre of PNG's COVID-19 outbreak. If one of us tests positive to this deadly virus, I am unsure how we will be able to isolate ourselves.

When I walk on the streets, two out of 10 people are wearing masks and no social distancing is practiced.

We know from our community engagement that people are not keen on the idea of accepting the vaccine, and the reason why is they don't know what it is. They are afraid it might have side effects. There is a serious lack of clear information.

Getting rid of the fake news is half the battle. Getting the correct information to people is the other half.

The politicians in Papua New Guinea and the Department of Health have tried their best to use social media to spread facts about Covid-19, but it has not stopped the skepticism and conspiracy theories.

We at Save the Children are preparing to run radio bulletins to inform people of the facts, including sharing an original song about Covid-19. But without action from social media companies, it's useless.

For many years, experts have warned about the dangers of unfiltered social media.

We have seen religious extremists, white supremacists and alt-right groups use misinformation to spread conspiracies and fake news with real and tragic consequences.

But Covid misinformation has the potential to be worse than the damage done by all those groups combined.

Without intervention from these social platforms, more people will get sick, and more people will die.

The situation in PNG is bad. How bad, we just don't know.

We don't know what the community transmission rates are because many people are not getting tested.

There is a lack of knowledge and awareness of what to do. Some people just don't care and others are afraid to find out their status.

Papua New Guineans are resilient people, but this is something different altogether.

Schools started as usual at the beginning of this year, but the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases caused schools nationwide to suspend classes three weeks early.

I have a six-year-old daughter in grade one, an 11-year-old son in grade six and my oldest daughter Bridgette is 13 and in grade 8, the final stage of primary education.

Bridgette is interested in forensic science. She is concerned right now, but thinks that we can get through this if we work together.

She wants adults to do the right thing. She doesn't understand how teachers and children can get it right while adults get it so wrong.

My husband is on field break, so he is looking after the children while I am at work. He tries to create a timetable for the children to do some school work, but half the time they are running around outside.

If it's a short lockdown, my children will be fine. But if it goes on longer, every single student in PNG will be impacted.

Over 86 per cent of people in PNG live in rural and remote areas, where successful sustained home learning is virtually impossible.

Many children in PNG do not have the resources to study from home.

Most students in Papua New Guinea do not have access to home learning materials.

My organisation, Save the Children, is working alongside the National Department of Education to bring physical home learning materials to children in the most vulnerable communities.

Save the Children works in over 1,450 schools across PNG.

Grade eight, 10 and 12 have been hit the hardest as they have examinations in October and November this year.

In each of these grades, you must pass an external exam to reach the next level of education.

In normal times, around half the students pass the final exams. This year it might be half that again and many students may have to repeat the year.

I'm really worried about Bridgette and all the other children in PNG.

They are doing their bit, it's now time for the adults that run some of the biggest social media companies to do something to tackle the pandemic, too.

Bernadette Yakopa is the Western Province Area Manager for Save the Children PNG


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