When Papua New Guinea recorded its first Covid case in March 2020, the country held its breath.
There were acute fears about its on the country’s already overwhelmed and under-resourced health system, which has roughly 500 doctors to serve a population of around nine million, and was already struggling to deal with outbreaks of measles, drug-resistant tuberculosis and polio.
But for a long time, the Covid crisis did not take hold in PNG.
Now, a year later, as vaccines allow many countries to hope for the end of the pandemic, the catastrophe experts predicted has finally arrived in Papua New Guinea.
“This is what we all feared last year when the pandemic started,” sayid Dr William Pomat, director of the Papua New Medical Research Institute.
In the last month, the number of confirmed cases in Papua New Guinea has skyrocketed, increasing from fewer than 900 cases and nine deaths at the beginning of February, to 2,658 confirmed cases and 36 deaths in mid-March.
“We are seeing more people getting very sick from Covid-19 this year compared to previous waves,” Matt Cannon, St John’s Commissioner.
Authorities fear that the scale of the outbreak has been masked by low testing rates – with just 55,000 tests conducted in the entire country throughout the pandemic – and that the true number of infections might be many times higher.
‘Fragile health system’
Writing in the Guardian earlier this week, Glen Mola, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Port Moresby General Hospital, in the country’s capital, warned that 30% of the staff at the maternity ward had tested positive to Covid and voiced his fears that they would not be able to keep the hospital’s doors open and women “may end up dying in the hospital car park”.
“We have a very fragile health system and the stress is already being felt. We may very soon collapse if we are not careful … It is a ticking timebomb,” said Dr Sam Yockopua, director of emergency medicine in Port Moresby.
Stigma around the virus is still rife in the Pacific country and many refuse to go for testing even when showing symptoms. Masks are only worn to enter buildings, but outside in the bustling city people still walk around without masks as conspiracy theories and claims of immunity grow.
Out in the public market in Port Moresby, people complain about having to wear masks, saying that Covid-19 cannot harm Papua New Guineans because of their skin tone, a myth that emerged early in the pandemic as an explanation for PNG’s low infection rates.
‘Covid-19 won’t affect us’
As Julie Osafa, 53, boards an overcrowded bus from Port Moresby to Boroko, she dismissed fears about the spread of Covid-19.
“PNG we are a Christian country, Covid-19 won’t affect us. They’re just lying to us,” she said.
Her friend Anna John, 46, added that the Covid-19 vaccine was the end of times and the vaccination would mark Papua New Guineans with the sign of the devil.
“They made Covid-19 so they can vaccinate us and put the mark of the beast, Satan, on us,” she said.
Even the family of an 86-year-old man suspected to have died from Covid-19 has called the virus a “government conspiracy”.
Australia has scrambled to provide its nearest neighbour with aid, promising to deliver 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and asking the European Union to divert one million doses of the vaccine bound for Australia to PNG instead. But many in Papua New Guinea still do not want to be vaccinated and are against the “national isolation” lockdown that will begin next week. Schools will close and travel will be banned.
Such beliefs and conspiracy theories have prompted the country’s prime minister, James Marape, and other members of parliament to come forward saying that they will be the first ones to be vaccinated, offering earlier this week to be the “guinea pig” for the vaccine.
“For those who think Covid-19 is a joke, or are playing around; this is a global established pandemic,’’ he warned.