MELBOURNE - In South Africa, only one in four people are vaccinated against Covid-19, a key factor behind the spread of the Omicron variant.
But just four kilometres north of Australia, the situation is far more dire. In Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour, fewer than one in 20 people have had the jab.
High rates of infection and low vaccination coverage significantly increase the risk of Covid not only spreading, but mutating.
Combined with high rates of HIV and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, also seen in South Africa, the risk of a dangerous new coronavirus variant emerging on Australia’s doorstep becomes very real.
As the world races to understand the implications of Omicron, PNG is still reeling from the latest Delta surge, causing record numbers of cases and deaths. Despite this, vaccination rates remain some of the lowest in the world.
As of last Sunday, just 2.2% of the population was fully vaccinated. By comparison, 75% of the Australian population was fully vaccinated.
In PNG, inadequate community awareness has led to widespread vaccine hesitancy in both urban and remote areas, spurred on by confusion about who can be vaccinated, where and with what vaccine.
PNG’s vaccine rollout has been severely hampered by misinformation and fear, compounded by practical and logistical issues.
Across the country, conspiracy theories spread by word-of-mouth and social media at immense speed. Even healthcare workers are not immune.
Unvaccinated workers discourage others from being vaccinated, while those promoting vaccination have been physically attacked in several provinces.
Many with fervently held religious beliefs have also incited stigma and discrimination, preventing people from being tested for Covid, let alone being vaccinated.
In such a climate of suspicion and distrust, Australia cannot simply send vaccines to PNG and expect to see a dramatic increase in vaccination rates.
Effective public health interventions require meeting people where they are - working with varied levels of understanding and acceptance - and physically visiting people in their communities.
It means empowering and educating local leaders and supporting them to shape discussions with their constituents.
The ‘End-Covid-For-All’ initiative is calling for the Australian government to invest $50 million to address vaccine hesitancy.
Changing minds is particularly challenging when you consider that PNG has no routine adult vaccination programs and some of the lowest childhood vaccination rates in the world.
A coordinated and sustained response is needed. Strategies which are currently underutilised but effective include joining forces with local vaccine champions – doctors, sports stars or community leaders – to share personal stories about people who have had Covid or been vaccinated. Church leaders could use scripture to encourage congregations to get vaccinated.
Western Province, bordering Indonesia and Australia, has ongoing community engagement and the highest vaccination rates outside of Port Moresby thanks to strong partnerships between government, churches, local leaders and international organisations.
Additionally, visits to remote and hard-to-reach villages for vaccine awareness and immunisation have been pivotal in helping overcome fears.
The lack of testing and absence of a national death registry makes it impossible to measure the true toll of Covid in PNG.
Yet, despite recent reports of oxygen shortages and overflowing morgues, most Papua New Guineans remain unconcerned and do not plan to get vaccinated.
Every additional day with lagging vaccination rates leads to preventable deaths. Omicron is a clarion call for Australia to do much more to help vaccinate the people of PNG.