Australia will start vaccinating Papua New Guinea’s frontline health workers, as well as residents of the “treaty villages” in the coronavirus-stricken Western province along Australia’s northern border.
Eight thousand doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Australia’s domestic stocks will be rushed north next week, as PNG wrestles with a burgeoning infection rate that threatens to overwhelm the country’s already-fragile health system. Hundreds of doctors and nurses have been infected, in some cases because of a lack of protective equipment.
Australia has also requested – and will pay for – 1m doses of vaccine from AstraZeneca for PNG.
The number of cases in PNG is growing exponentially, jumping from fewer than 1,000 one month ago to 2,269. But there is little testing across the archipelago.
Just over 54,000 tests have been carried out across the country – population nearly 9 million – during the entire pandemic, and the actual rate of infection is factors higher.
In many places outside the capital, Port Moresby, there is no testing at all. PNG government sources say the actual case rate could be 10 times the official figure.
Australia had already committed 200,000 vaccine doses to PNG but those were not due to arrive until April.
But the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Wednesday committed 8,000 doses for frontline workers in PNG and for residents of the treaty villages that border Australia.
Australia will also send medical essentials, including ventilators, masks, gowns and gloves. Passenger flights from PNG to Cairns have been suspended for two weeks, and outbound flights from Australian airports to PNG have also been suspended, except for essential and critical workers.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours,” Morrison said of PNG.
“This is in Australia’s interests and it is in our region’s interests and it’s incumbent on us as Australians both to secure the health of our own citizens but equally our PNG family who are so dear to us.”
Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said the situation in PNG had deteriorated rapidly and the true extent of the outbreak was not known.
“Of the cases diagnosed in PNG, half of them have been diagnosed in the past couple of weeks, from the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “Recognising that they did not have the resources for mass testing like we have in Australia … any number you see out of Papua New Guinea of cases and even deaths will be a major underestimate.”
Twenty-six people have been confirmed to have died from Covid-19 in PNG. The actual death toll is believed to be significantly higher.
The funeral and burial of PNG’s founding father, Sir Michael Somare, last week saw massive gatherings in Port Moresby and Wewak, with fears that those memorials could serve as super-spreader events, the effects of which will become apparent in coming weeks.
The number of people being admitted to hospital in Queensland with Covid-19 has doubled in the last 10 days, as a result of infected people flying in from PNG.
Thirty-two confirmed cases have been imported into Australia from PNG, and 13 remain in hospital.
Last week Cairns hospital declared a “code yellow” – an internal emergency as the hospital neared capacity – after an influx of Covid-positive patients, mainly mine workers from the Ok Tedi mine in Western province.
Queensland Health said three patients remained in the hospital while four others had been transferred to other Queensland hospitals.
In the Australian Torres Strait, the regional council mayor, Phillemon Mosby, told Guardian Australia the border with PNG needed to remain shut while vaccinations were rolled out across islands. Vaccinations began on Saibai Island on Monday.
“Our communities are small and with overcrowded living conditions,” Mosby said. “Just one case in community would spread rapidly, our people are vulnerable, and an outbreak would be catastrophic.”
The border between the treaty villages of PNG and Australia is usually porous: under the Torres Strait treaty traditional inhabitants of the islands and villages along the countries’ shared border are able to move without restriction between the two countries.
But all cross-border movements have been suspended since March.
An Australian Border Force spokesperson said the ban on cross-border travel would remain “until further notice” and ABF was “closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with Australian and Papua New Guinea (PNG) counterparts”.
Mat Tinkler, the deputy chief executive of Save the Children Australia, said while Australia’s urgent health intervention was welcome, its support must go further.
“There’s no such thing as JobKeeper or JobSeeker in PNG, and the health crisis is masking an underlying crisis of poverty that’s only being exacerbated by Covid,” he said.
Beyond the risk of Covid infection, he said, the secondary consequences of the burgeoning pandemic were potentially “life-threatening”.
“Parents are struggling to provide food and shelter and young girls are being forced to abandon their education and pushed into child marriage. Violence in the home, already at endemic levels, is increasing.”