Papua New Guinea is facing a COVID-19 emergency after months of relative normality, with the number of reported infections across the Pacific island nation doubling each week for the past month and hospitals past breaking points.
Last week — almost exactly a year to the day since Papua New Guinea recorded its first COVID-19 case — the country reported 357 new infections. The figure marks the highest number of reported cases in a single week since the pandemic’s start and brings the nation’s total to 1,670.
The situation is compounded, experts state, by a lack of testing and accurate reporting.
Just 55,000 tests are thought to have been conducted among 9 million citizens, with Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, claiming a more realistic impression could be achieved by adding a zero to the end of the reported infection figures.
"Sadly, those worst affected appear to be people in urban centres, where diabetes and other lifestyle diseases proliferate. Often it is civil servants and health care workers who are most susceptible,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Australian.
With cases raging on, the nation’s already underfunded and overburdened health system is at a point of total collapse.
"Some hospitals around the country have shut down services as COVID-19 surges due to budget cuts,” University of Papua New Guinea Lecturer Michael Kabuni wrote for the DevPolicy Blog. “Port Moresby General Hospital has run out of personal protective equipment and appealed to the public on Facebook for donations of essentials such as face masks, gloves and sanitisers to deal with the rise in cases.”
The nation is home to just 500 doctors, fewer than 4,000 nurses and around 5,000 hospital beds.
There are just over two dozen available ventilators.
On Tuesday, Papua New Guinea approved the regulation required to receive COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX.
The COVAX Facility — a vaccine equity partnership between the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness — will supply the nation with around 600,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by June’s end.
While the first COVAX-sourced doses are expected to be administered this month, Pryke is calling on Australia to urgently aid its closest neighbour by providing medical personnel and rolling out some of its vaccine stocks to frontline health workers.
He said Australia must act “not next month or next week, but right now.”
"An immediate rollout of Australia’s vaccine stocks targeting health care workers can make sure the country’s frontline workers are as protected as they can be,” he said. “Australians have the luxury of being free of community transmission. Papua New Guinea’s frontline workers don’t, and cannot be replaced if they fall foul of this disease.”
A further 200,000 vaccines have already been secured from Australia and 70,000 from India, according to SBS.