PNG caught in China-Australia Covid power play
03 August 2021
| ABC Papua New Guinea Correspondent
Link to Natalie’s complete article here
PORT MORESBY - On two sides of Papua New Guinea's capital, there are duelling vaccine rollouts run by Australian and Chinese representatives taking place.
In the face of a contagious new variant and widespread vaccine hesitancy, PNG is taking help from any neighbour offering it.
But vaccines have become a loaded political issue lately.
On a Saturday morning in the car park of Papua New Guinea's biggest shopping centre, the country's first pop-up clinic has just opened.
Music is playing, free shirts are being given away, and importantly, people are getting their jabs.
While this Port Moresby clinic is being run by PNG's health authorities, Australian embassy staff are on site helping, and almost everyone is wearing face masks and shirts emblazoned with the ‘AusPNG Partnership’ logo.
On the other side of the city, at Port Moresby's biggest hospital, another vaccine clinic has been set up.
But this one is being run by a visiting Chinese medical team administering doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.
PNG, which recently detected its first case of the Delta variant, agreed to offers of vaccine supplies from both China and Australia earlier this year amid a surge in COVID cases.
But the geopolitics tied up in the schemes have been hard to ignore, particularly with the Chinese government recently accusing Australian advisers in PNG of interfering with and delaying the rollout of its vaccine in the country.
It is an allegation Australia has denied.
Like most Pacific countries, PNG has long walked a careful diplomatic line amid the geopolitical battle that is intensifying in the region, and it has become somewhat adept at managing the potentially awkward situation.
PNG's Health Minister, Jelta Wong, said the country did not "take sides".
"We are thankful to Australia for giving vaccines and we are thankful to China for giving vaccines," he said.
"Both countries help us in many ways, and we will always be in debt to them for the times Papua New Guinea was in need and they came to our aid."
He emphasised that PNG was a sovereign country and he denied it was coming under pressure or influence from outside powers.
"There's no pressure from any political or country affiliation," he said.
Australia has a long history of supporting PNG since it gained its independence and it is by far its biggest aid partner.
But it has received increased attention under Australia's "Pacific Step Up", which has been seen as a counter to China's rising influence.
There has also been a rise in the use of the AusPNG Partnership logo in the country in recent years, matching the China Aid logos that spread quickly in the lead-up to PNG hosting APEC in 2018.
The vaccines are just the latest flashpoint in the geopolitical push and shove, coming shortly after a public debate over whether China presented a security ‘challenge’ for PNG.
Last month, at a Sinopharm vaccine launch event held at the Port Moresby General Hospital, the Chinese ambassador to PNG, Zeng Fanhua, spoke out about "political manipulation" of the pandemic.
It followed disappointment among some Chinese officials that neither the Prime Minister nor Health Minister came to the airport when the vaccines were flown in, as they had with other vaccine donations.
Instead they left it to the country's planning minister to represent the government.
"We must always adopt a scientific, objective and impartial attitude in the fight against Covid-19," Mr Zeng said at the launch.
"We have seen some countries are using the pandemic for political purpose, including on the issue of origin tracing of the virus."
He said the international community "should stand together to firmly oppose such politicising and irresponsible acts".
China first offered 200,000 Covid-19 vaccines in February, but PNG said it was waiting for the World Health Organization and local medical authorities to approve the Sinopharm shot for emergency use before bringing it in.
That did not happen until the start of May.
But privately, some people in the PNG health system complained about a lack of information and support included with the Sinopharm vaccines when they arrived.
So far, more than 5,200 people in PNG have had the Sinopharm vaccine, the majority of whom have been Chinese citizens in the country.
More than 600 shots have gone to Papua New Guineans or people of other nationalities, including Indonesian embassy staff.
These vaccinations have not yet been included in the national data that is regularly sent out. It is only tracking AstraZeneca doses administered under the national rollout.
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