The unfolding Covid disaster in PNG

Apr 5, 2021
Helping New Guinea with its disastrous Covid outbreak is not pure altruism on our part. The unbridled, indeed raging pandemic, known to have infected 100,000 already and likely to have infected a million more within a week or so, provides a perfect ‘incubator’ for wild type more infectious variants of the Covid to develop. We need to help our close neighbour in a way that prevents transmission of the New Guinea variant spilling into Australia.

New Guinea has about 9 million people and some 500 doctors. Already the few hospitals in the country are at breaking point, so heavy is the demand for Covid care. Two weeks ago the Morrison government laid out its plan to help fight the pandemic. We sent 8000 doses of the Astra/Zenica vaccine to be used to immunise front line workers. We also sent three ‘Hazmat’ specialists to assess the situation.
As these initiatives alone represent little more than tokenism, what was to be the more substantial offering. How about a million doses of the vaccine?  One can’t escape some cynicism here as by then it was clear that Inter-European politics was going to stop this million doses leaving Europe.
For many months Papua-New Guinea has had a generous offer on the table from China. Two Chinese vaccines are being used in some 69 developing countries. China has said that to “support each other’s core interests” it would supply the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, both of which work well in stopping fatal consequences developing after a SARS infection. I recently detailed the efficacy of these vaccines herein. Papua-New Guinea should immediately accept any donations of vaccines. Why haven’t they?
A few months ago China offered the vaccines. At the time government spokesperson, one Mr Paita thanked China but later said,
“It was made in the context of the Chinese Government offering their help to fight the coronavirus pandemic when PNG was first hit with active cases. I only said that we appreciate China’s assistance, just the same as we appreciate other development partners and our bilateral partners or other countries where we have strong relationships with.”
Then PNG Prime Minister James Marape announced the Government will be investing millions of dollars to a local company for the development of an unknown COVID-19 treatment. Despite some backlash, Mr Marape defended the decision and said there was nothing “illegal or improper” about the Government’s engagement with the newly founded Niugini BioMed. The company said it was “highly confident” that it had discovered a new treatment for COVID-19 after “scanning and analysing” 30,000 drugs from around the world.

It was a ridiculous decision to delay vaccination efforts while this start-up company sought a cure. Then there emerged a plan, possibly linked to vaccine donations, in which a Chinese company has put forward a multi-billion-dollar plan to build a new city on the Papua New Guinean island of Daru, which sits on the nation’s sea border with Australia.
The proposal for the New Daru City includes an industrial zone, seaport, business and commercial zone over a 100-square-kilometre area. Australia is not happy with such a proposal. Whatever the state of play is with these proposals they are doing nothing to address the enormous potential for suffering and death from Covid-19 in NewGuinea.
Australia now has CSL making between 800,000 and a million doses of AZ vaccine weekly. Truth is that while we are hearing many complaints about the slowness of the rollout of vaccination here, even with the occasional Covid ‘hot spots’ like greater Brisbane and Byron Bay our situation remains enviable while PNG’s is perilous.
We have a remarkable history of restricting Covid infections to manageable levels without a vaccine. Not without much social and financial stress of course, but we are among the top ten countries in the world to have saved its population from Covid disasters. The point is that we can and should divert some of our weekly production of the AZ vaccine to PNG, even though that will slow down our timetable for having all Australians immunised.

However, there is another major problem that must be addressed with PNG, namely the massively difficult task of delivering the vaccine to people living in the more remote areas of the country. Logistics may well need a lot of helicopters carrying vaccines and skilled nurses to administer them, along with local leaders who would need to encourage people to accept vaccination.
The initiatives are urgent and as I see it, a real test of our claimed genuine commitment to having our rich developed nation help our nearest developing nation in a time of great need.

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