Australian officials carry boxes of about 8,000 starting doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine after arriving aboard a Royal Australian Air Force plane at Port Moresby International Airport on March 23, 2021, following the fragile healthcare system.

Andrew Kutan | AFP | Getty Images

The coronavirus crisis in Papua New Guinea continues to escalate as the Indo-Pacific nation seriously waits for vaccines to arrive.

In just one week – between March 22-28 – 1,786 new cases of Covid-19 and 13 deaths were reported, according to the latest report from the World Health Organization and National Ministry of Health from PNG.

The weekly joint report said the island nation reported a total of 5,349 cases and 49 deaths on March 28, 12:00 p.m. local time. It was the eighth week in a row of gains.

Papua New Guinea is a heavily forested nation of fewer than 9 million people, located about 160 km north of Australia at its closest point.

Prime Minister James Marape admitted last week that there is “rampant community broadcast”.

Health system at “risk of collapse”

The situation on the ground in PNG is said to be dire, and international organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have warned of an impending collapse of the country’s overstretched health system.

“The health care system in PNG is threatened with collapse as the health facilities that manage COVID-19 are almost at full capacity and almost too congested to provide regular basic care,” said Doctors Without Borders.

The Pacific island nation has only about 500 doctors, fewer than 4,000 nurses, and fewer than 3,000 community health workers. This emerges from data shared by the Prime Minister during an address to Parliament last year. There are only about 5,000 beds in hospitals, he added.

Doctors Without Borders, who provide medical humanitarian aid in troubled countries, said more and more health care workers in PNG have tested positive for Covid-19 and have been forced to quarantine at home. The health facilities handling the outbreak are almost at full capacity, resulting in longer waiting times.

According to Kate Schuetze, a Pacific researcher at Amnesty International, PNG also has relatively poor health indicators.

Additional personal protective equipment, testing capacity and staff must be quickly considered to support the already strained healthcare system.

Ghulam Nabi

Interim Head of Mission for Papua New Guinea at MSF

“We already have a bad health system and then you also have a high level of comorbidities, which will also affect the Covid-19 crisis,” Sch├╝tze told CNBC on Wednesday. “So you have malaria in the country, you have multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, as well as a number of other diseases that could increase the effects of Covid-19.”

Large numbers of people also live in rural or remote communities where it is difficult to get the same health care as in urban centers like Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, she added.

Lack of equipment

According to the joint report by the WHO and the Ministry of Health, only 7,061 Covid tests were performed between March 22 and 28 – this means that 25.29% of these tests were positive.

Large-scale testing remains low in most of the country, and there is a shortage of test kits as well as logistical difficulties, the report said. This suggests that the actual number of infections across the country may be significantly higher than officially reported.

As the isolation wards in hospitals filled up, PNG turned a sports complex into a temporary field hospital for Covid-19 patients.

MSF said Friday that it is helping local health services by providing staff and cartridges to analyze samples from polymerase chain reaction tests, which are often used to detect the coronavirus. According to Doctors Without Borders, almost 40% of people tested in any of the health facilities have Covid-19. The organization expects more cases in the coming weeks.

MSF also said it only has enough trial cartridges to last up to two weeks.

“Additional personal protective equipment, testing capacity and human resources must be seen as swift to support the already strained healthcare system,” Ghulam Nabi, MSF interim head of mission for Papua New Guinea, said in a statement.

He added that MSF urges organizations in the region to act quickly and mobilize to increase their support for the Pacific nation.

Access to vaccines and tackle misinformation

PNG launched its vaccination campaign this week with the 8,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 shots donated by Australia.

Of the country Prime Minister Marape reportedly received his first dose on Tuesday.

Growing vaccine nationalism around the world is making it difficult for small developing countries like PNG to gain access to shots to vaccinate their populations.

Many of them rely on a global vaccination initiative called Covax, which aims to ensure an equitable distribution of shots in less affluent countries. It is jointly managed by the WHO, Gavi – the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

According to Amnesty Schuetze, one of the challenges with the Covax facility is that not enough countries are donating enough money, resources or vaccines to ensure fairer distribution.

PNG is slated to receive around 588,000 doses of vaccine from Covax by June.

For its part, Australia has reportedly asked the European Union to distribute 1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to PNG. It was in the beginning contracted to go to Australia. Reuters reported last week that the EU has not yet responded to this request.

Canberra has also reportedly asked the US, Japan and India – the other members of the informal Quad Alliance – to help PNG.

Meanwhile, vaccine skepticism and the spread of misinformation complicate matters in the island nation. Opposition leader Belden Namah reportedly urged the government to suspend the launch of the AstraZeneca vaccine as it would expose citizens to potentially serious harm.

The PNG government needs to do more to educate and educate the public about vaccines and health treatments for Covid-19, Amnestys Schuetze said.