Covid is a test I believe we'll pass
18 May 2021
Gianluca Rampolla is resident coordinator of the United Nations in Papua New Guinea and says public health communications and health system strengthening undertaken during the Covid-19 outbreak, will help to put the PNG health system on a better platform to combat future pandemics
PORT MORESBY - On Friday, I received my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
It is incredible to think that in a little over a year since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, a vaccine has been developed and is now being administered in PNG.
Of course, I am in Port Moresby and am receiving my vaccine at a private hospital. Ensuring vaccines are available to communities around the country will be the true test.
I have been fortunate during my time in PNG to be able to travel to some of the planet’s most unique and vulnerable landscapes.
When I travel, I am constantly reminded of just how remote some communities in PNG truly are.
North Fly in Western Province bordering Indonesia was one of the first to report cases of Covid and now has one of the highest counts of Covid cases in the country.
It is also home to some of the most difficult-to-reach communities in the region and hosts asylum seekers. Some riverside communities are entirely inaccessible during the dry season.
At the start of the pandemic, I visited Rumginae Hospital, a referral hospital about an hour’s drive from the region’s major town of Kiunga, to speak with Dr Kevin Pondikou – the hospital’s only doctor – and his staff.
Dr Pondikou showed us the storerooms which were running low on personal protective equipment (PPE).
A new diagnostic machine was sitting in a box because travel restrictions meant the technician had not been able to travel to install it.
A few weeks after this visit, colleagues from the UN Population Fund returned to Rumginae.
A young woman came in suffering from shock. She had delivered a baby three weeks earlier in her village without a midwife or any medical support.
Bleeding heavily, she and her mother walked for close to one day to reach the aid post at Mougolou, from where she was airlifted to Kiunga and then brought to Rumginae where she received a blood transfusion.
Healthcare providers like the team at Rumginae were stretching their resources to treat patients even before a surge in cases in February 2021. Preventing severe complications from Covid is vital to keeping this hospital open.
We have received 132,000 vaccines through the COVAX Facility.
Despite the incredible achievement in bringing a vaccine to so many developing countries within such a short time, this shipment arrived too late for the 136 people, including one of our colleagues, who have died from Covid-19.
Link here for the latest PNG figures
That shipment contained less than half of the 288,000 vaccines PNG was originally assigned. We need to push for better distribution of vaccines to the most vulnerable.
And that doesn’t end with a photo op at Port Moresby’s Jacksons Airport. It ends when every person in this half island nation of 7.4 million has been given the choice to get the vaccine.
Reaching communities like Rumginae is of course a major challenge, but an achievable one.
In 2018, WHO and UNICEF vaccinated 3.1 million children against polio within only a few months of an outbreak being announced.
The challenge we have on our hands with Covid is that the virus and the vaccine are new, leading to significant skepticism and vaccine hesitancy.
As more young people are connected to the internet, vaccine conspiracy spreads like wildfire. Rumours reach these communities before we can.
However, to focus on the scale of this challenge ignores the opportunities.
The public health information we share now – on how a virus is spread and on how vaccines work – sets us and the local health system on a better platform to combat future pandemics.
Funding to the Covid response has enabled Institute of Medicine and UNICEF to build water facilities in North Fly, and to support the districts most vulnerable people.
We have also demonstrated, at the regional and global level, that PNG has friends all over the world who are ready and willing step up to support.
Development partners and the private sector have donated tonnes of PPE, testing kits and lab consumables, medical devices and personnel, and vaccines.
This pandemic is testing our capacity for cooperation and I believe it is a test we will pass.
Mr Rampolla is correct to say that Covid-19 is a test and it is one which we collectively seem to be in danger of failing.
A combination of ignorance and stupidity is gravely hampering the roll out of the vaccines developed in record time by the scientists whose opinions too many of us studiously ignore most of the time, preferring instead to reply upon our own highly dubious opinions.
All too often, these opinions are based upon the misinformation, pseudo-science and sheer bullshit peddled on social media by the various celebrities and 'influencers' who now infest the cyber world like fleas on a dog.
It doesn't help matters much that far too many of our political class seem quite incapable of grasping the true nature and extent of the problem. They certainly have no idea at all about the likely geo-political consequences.
There seems unlikely to be a post Covid-19 world. By this I mean a world where Covid-19 has been eliminated. Consequently, we will all have to live with this highly transmissible disease into the indefinite future.
Because Covid-19 has proven able to mutate so rapidly, it seems probable that we will need annual booster shots in much the same manner as we do for influenza. This is certainly the view of the Chief Executive of Pfizer and I have no reason to think that he is wrong.
There is as yet no effective treatment for the disease although, only yesterday, a team of scientists from Griffith University is Queensland announced that they had discovered an antiviral therapy developed using RNA technology that appears capable of largely eliminating Covid-19.
This therapy works spectacularly well in mice but is yet to be proven safe and effective in humans, so some time will elapse before we can know if and when it can be used to treat the disease.
Assuming that the vaccine roll out allows us to reach herd immunity and assuming that an effective treatment is developed, it seems likely that a post pandemic world will be rendered safe enough for some form of global economy to be restarted.
However, it seems vanishingly improbable that it will be the form of globalisation that existed prior to the pandemic. Too many things have changed since then for this to be the case.
The western powers have belatedly come to understand the true nature and ambition of the Chinese Communist Party which rules China.
They also have begun to understand the deeply pernicious impact of rampant neo-liberal capitalism which now imperils us all in various ways, notably how its requirement for endless growth and the associated exploitation of the world's natural resources is impacting upon the environment.
History suggests that those who attempt to predict the future with any precision are invariably wrong.
So, with that important caveat in mind, I will only say that the new post pandemic world order must necessarily be different, perhaps very different, to that which went before.
Whether it will transpire that we have passed the test referred to by Mr Rampolla is hard to gauge but my hope is that he will be right.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 18 May 2021 at 12:36 PM