While Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) delicate healthcare system crumbles under the weight of a deadly third wave, the country’s vaccination rate remains cripplingly low.
Currently only 1.7 per cent of PNG’s population of 8.9 million are fully-vaccinated, despite the island nation recording hundreds of new cases every day.
After cases briefly plateaued between June and September, the country entered a deadly third wave in September of this year.
Since then, new daily infections have jumped between 100 to a pandemic high of 975 on November 3. Authorities, however, believe actual numbers to be higher due to low testing rates.
Speaking to The Conversation, PNG-based gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Glen Liddell Mola, said even young people are dying from the virus.
“I am 50 years into medical practice and not many illness scenarios challenge or frighten me anymore; but watching young people die from severe Covid disease had a very big impact on me.
“They literally die from laboured breathing respiratory failure: they just do not have the strength to take another breath.”
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Their vaccination rate is also easily dwarfed by neighbouring countries in the Pacific.
Nauru vaccinated its entire adult population in May this year, with Fiji (more than 80 per cent) and New Caledonia (93 per cent) reporting similar numbers. Despite only having had reported one confirmed case, the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga’s vaccine rollout has still hit 35.2 per cent.
Across the Buka Strait, the Solomon Islands have roughly 12 per cent of their population double-jabbed, according to numbers from October 15.
PNG’s overwhelmed health system and lack of vaccine protection is proving deadly.
With the nation’s Covid death toll now at 413, even their morgues and funeral services are struggling.
The country’s pandemic response controller, David Manning, recently authorised the mass burial of 200 bodies after the morgue in the capital of Port Moresby was filled beyond capacity. RNZ also reported the mortuary at Port Moresby General Hospital had reached full capacity and was filled with over 300 bodies, despite the limit being 60.
Despite vaccine support from Australia, New Zealand, the US and China, the uptake of the jabs is not there, with the core reason being extreme vaccine hesitancy.
In mid-September, this prompted the Government of PNG to donate 30,000 vaccine doses to Vietnam, after they were set to expire at the end of the month.
Healthcare workers and medical aid workers have even reported receiving death threats from rural communities who associate the vaccine with “witchcraft”. This presents another difficulty for PNG’s vaccine distribution, which is challenged by the country’s varied terrain and dispersed population
“The conspiracy theories are really adapting as fast as the mutations of Covid itself,” said the CEO of Australian Doctors International (ADI), Mimi Zilliacus, speaking to the ABC.
“That’s in part driven a lot by a very low-level understanding of biology and science, and a background of having a culture around witchcraft and a belief in superstitions.”
Social media is also to blame, however the misinformation often comes from international sources. Posts by influencers and even religious fringe groups have run rampant on newsfeeds and timelines, effectively deterring citizens.
But despite the government’s Sleeves Up campaign and even a public education initiative from Facebook to quash vaccine misinformation, the hesitancy has permeated every level of PNG society. The Post-Courier reported that just half of PNG’s parliamentarians have been inoculated themselves.
Health workers, too, are apprehensive. Speaking to The Australian, Port Moresby General Hospital’s chief executive, Dr Paki Molumi, said less than 10 per cent of the hospital nurses were fully-vaccinated despite Covid-infected patients frequently presenting to the hospital.
“The third [Delta] wave is hitting most parts of the country. This is the worst phase of the crisis,” Molumi said.
“And also the vaccination rates are very low, and that has put healthcare providers under great stress. We cannot predict what numbers we will expect the next day, or the day after that.”
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