The Controller of the PNG COVID-19 National Pandemic Response and Police Commissioner David Manning said on March 21 that PNG had seen the number of cases of COVID-19 rise to over 3,000 in the country in just over a month.
“The number of detected COVID-19 infections today has reached 3,085, which is triple the positive cases one month ago, and we must prepare for this number to continue rising,” Manning said. “Now is the time for all of our people to be reminded how serious this threat is to us and continue to take precautions to stop the spread.”
He called on people to wear face masks, wash their hands constantly, and maintain social distancing everywhere possible.
The plea from Manning comes after PNG Prime Minister James Marape warned on March 16 that he was afraid the country’s infection rate could be as high as one in every three or four people. However, the country’s lack of adequate testing facilities means the Papuan government has no real estimates of the outbreak’s scale.
Prof. Glen Mola, a senior gynaecologist from the Port Moresby General Hospital, told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on March 17 that his hospital was under enormous pressure. He is expecting riots if the situation did not change.
“The problem is all the usual patients keep on coming,” Mola said. “The sick kids, the women in labour, car accidents, the knife wounds that just arrives at emergency and at the maternity section.”
“By the time we get to 50 percent [of staff testing positive], we’ll have to close the doors. At that point, we can’t carry on with the service.
“We’ll reach a critical point where we have to close the doors, and then there will be absolute chaos, of course, because people will just keep coming, but they’ll be turned away at the gate. Then there will be riots, I tell you,” he said.
The Australian government has promised the PNG government 8,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from its own stockpile to help with the outbreak. It is also making a formal request to AstraZeneca and European Authorities for one million doses of Australia’s contracted supplies to gift to PNG.
In a joint media release on March 17, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja said that this would enable vaccination of PNG’s essential health workforce.
“Our early vaccine assistance will be coordinated with the Papua New Guinean Government’s response, which has included their COVID-19 National Pandemic Response taskforce. We will also work with the WHO and UNICEF to ensure that it complements PNG’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan,” the release said.
“We are conscious of the close family and cultural connections of those people living in the Torres Strait Protected Zone. Both Governments are determined to protect our respective communities and avoid any cross-border COVID-19 transmission,” the release said.
Australia will also deploy a team of three Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) health specialists to Port Moresby to work with local health authorities on infection control, triage, and emergency management and public health measures.
Passenger flights between Australia and PNG have been suspended, except for freight, medivac, or humanitarian flights.
The quick offer of Australian aid comes after the PNG government refuted Beijing’s claim that PNG had agreed to allow the communist regime to provide vaccine aid in February.
Acting Foreign Minister Rainbo Paita denied the claims by Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who wrote on Twitter saying that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had spoken to Paita and they had agreed that China would supply PNG with vaccines.
However, Paita told the ABC that PNG had made no such agreement. “I did not commit the Government whatsoever,” Paita said.
“I said that we were aware of China’s assistance to some of the countries in the world for those vaccines. But I said we had our own internal processes,” he said.
PNG has been heavily engaging with China since signing onto the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018. The latest engagement occurred on March 18 when the government approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the China Enterprise Association to develop investment in PNG.
In December last year, Chinese companies also proposed a large scale fisheries precinct on Daru Island in PNG, just 200 kilometres from Australia.