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Time is running out to prevent catastrophe in PNG

COVID-19 cases are rising uncontrolled in Papua New Guinea, putting thousands of people at risk in remote areas without access to clean water or adequate health care. The outbreak has also exposed Australia’s north to a new wave of infection.

The Australian Government has responded to the emergency with a plan to immediately send 8,000 COVID-19 vaccines to PNG alongside an Australian Medical Assistance Team. The aim is to protect front line health workers, but the long-term race to vaccinate people in the provinces faces severe challenges.

“In the Highlands there are strong beliefs about witchcraft and people have traditionally used poisoned arrows and foods against others, so people are very suspicious of anything that is injected into the body,” says Bena Seta, who manages the community services projects of UCPNG.

“A focus on the book of Revelation and the apocalypse complicate people’s understanding of the pandemic, and there is also just not a great deal of awareness about modern medicine or the use of vaccines in general.”

Rumours about the vaccine have been running rampant in PNG, with some members of parliament supporting the idea that they are unsafe.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have recognised the critical importance of working in partnership with PNG churches, who have reach and influence in areas where the virus is growing unchecked.

We have joined with other churches and are working urgently to talk with people about their fears and reassure them that the vaccine is safe,” Bena says. “We did the same with polio and measles vaccinations, and we had good success. We know how to make this work but we need the time and resources to do it.”

High rates of infection

Staggeringly high infection rates have been recorded. Of 91 people tested in a single day, 82 returned a positive test, leading Queensland to suspend flights to Cairns from Papua New Guinea. Movement in and out of communities in the mining industry could be driving the spike in infections, with workers transmitting not just within the country but also to North Queensland.

“We are not even sure how much community transmission there is because the rate of testing isn’t good,” says Bena, who waited five hours in a line for his test at the local hospital. “And isolating while you wait for a test result is very difficult for people in both the city and rural areas. What about work? What about food?”

UnitingWorld supports UCPNG to run a widespread behaviour change campaign to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across communities in PNG

Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and UnitingWorld donors, UnitingWorld’s partner UCPNG has been offering practical training to health workers, trying to increase the number of sanitation stations in schools and going village to village to encourage social distancing, hand washing and the wearing of masks.

“To be honest we are very fearful – we have seen what can happen in even affluent countries with this disease,” Bena says.

“If this really spreads to rural areas, where there is not much access to clean water or health workers, things will be very very difficult. We know we need to act very quickly here.”

How you can help

You can support our ongoing work with UCPNG to provide critical public health advocacy on COVID-19 and vaccines; as well as clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) education and infrastructure in rural communities by making a donating today.

Please make your donation online at www.lentevent.com.au or call us on 1800 998 122

The United Church in PNG Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project and COVID-19 response activities are supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).