Citizens in Papua New Guinea have described horrific scenes of COVID patients being treated on the floor of hospitals, whole provinces going without testing, and a death toll that is silently rising as the country grapples with a devastating outbreak.
On Wednesday the Australian government announced it was in discussions with AstraZeneca and the EU for urgent access to 1 million doses of its contracted COVID-19 vaccine to send to its northern neighbour.
Eight thousand vaccines from Australia’s stash will travel to the country within days to help inoculate frontline workers and contain the outbreak.
One 49-year-old Moresby local, who asked not to be named, told The New Daily that hospitals across the country were either overrun or under-resourced.
“Lots of reports of people are getting sick with flu symptoms, coughs, headaches,” he said.
His family lives in Kerema almost 100 kilometres from Port Moresby. There’s been no testing, and those turning up sick at the hospital are being sent away, he said.
My own relatives, they’ve been up to hospital trying to get pain relief, they get turned away. There are no drugs.”
He said the situation in Port Moresby was no better, with 40 per cent of the general hospital staff infected with COVID-19 and stocks of oxygen and drugs disappearing fast, he said.
“For the last week and a half, there have been reports from doctors who are working saying ‘There is not enough medicine’ and ‘If you do show symptoms of COVID, you can come, but be aware we may not attend to you’.”
More than 1000 new cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the country since March 1 – almost doubling its total case number since the start of the pandemic a year ago.
Low rates of testing have raised concerns the virus has been spreading silently across the country, with the numbers already out of control.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister James Marape said the country had recorded 97 cases of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours.
There’s also great concern after mass gatherings were held a fortnight ago around the country for commemoration events honouring former PNG prime minister Michael Somare.
The Moresby local TND spoke to said the serious nature of the virus was being lost in the gulf between the country’s two distinct classes. The middle class realises the risks, he said, but those living on the poverty line weren’t being delivered clear, tailored messages in their languages.
“What’s being put out from the government is being done in English,” he explained, more commonly spoken by more affluent citizens.
No idea of outbreak size
Oxfam’s Country Director Anand Das said the main hospital in Port Moresby had become so overrun, they were treating people on the floor.
“They have seen a surge with mild to high symptoms, and their isolation wards are getting full and they have to lie patients down on the floor,” Mr Das said.
“That’s how grim the situation is becoming.”
He said it was difficult to know how far it had spread across the country because the number of tests was so low.
“With the surge in cases, people were caught off guard,” he said.
“There is community transmission in most provinces. But we don’t have a real picture.”
One ex-pat, who lives in Madang, a province of more than 27,000, said it was the calm before the storm.
“This place is about to explode,” he said.
He said their local hospital floods when it rains and health care is almost non-existent.
“The provincial health authority has only just started testing people for COVID,” he said.
“One of my staff just this morning informed me his cousin died over the weekend, a fit young fellow who died of a lung problem. He was not tested for COVID.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was moving fast to help its nearest neighbour.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours, they’re our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them,” Mr Morrison said.
“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 own supply of the AstraZeneca jab has been delayed by Europe imposing export restrictions but the PM said he expected Europe would help with the request.