Panic over lack of covid info in rural PNG risks lives

7:20 pm on 3 April 2020

A Papua New Guinean woman says that a lack of information over covid-19 is causing panic in rural health services.

PNG Highlands Highway

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Grace Nugi said her diabetic mother died last week shortly after being ejected along with other patients from a small hospital in Chimbu province in the Highlands.

She said the government had just announced its two-week state of emergency measures over the pandemic without proper awareness and directions given to hospitals and health centres.

This left Hospital Management exposed and acting without guidance at a time of crisis, Mr Nugi said.

Health workers at Mingende Hospital in Chimbu's Kerowagi district removed all patients, and Ms Nugi's mother subsequently passed away without access to insulin and IV fluids she depended on.

"The health workers sort of panicked. They didn't have proper directives from higher up on what to do. They said, we're not prepared for this, so they're just sending patients out.

"There's a communication breakdown to the rural areas. I'm just afraid that a lot more people will unnecessarily die because of this panic."

Much of government's messaging about covid-19 so far had been through Facebook, television and radio, but many rural people don't have access to such media.

According to Ms Nugi, extra efforts were required by government and administrators to ensure advisories about the pandemic filtered through to village level in PNG's many remote rural communities.

PNG Highlands Highway - farming

Many people in PNG's Highlands region lack access to social media and television, formats on which much of the government's covid-19 messages are directed. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Since the state of emergency was declared at the beginning of last week, the actions of some officials had only added to confusion and fear.

"The police officers were on the borders, violent to people, screaming at them to go home and all that without any awareness done," Ms Nugi explained.

The contagion of panic within the health system is also being seen in major cities like Lae where workers at Angau hospital were protesting about lack of preparedness in the government's covid response, and consequently turning away patients.

Given her mother's experience in Mingende Hospital, Ms Nugi warned that more panic would be devastating among PNG's rural majority.

"So yeah, she passed away and I'm sure that... if that was in a sort of semi-urban area, then in the rural places, I dont think people don't stand a chance," Ms Nugi said.

"We may not die of covid-19, but we may certainly die because of the panic and anxiety of we lack the knowledge of how it is spread and how to avoid it and practice basic hygiene."

The James Marape-led government has faced criticism in recent weeks over its fragmented communications about the response to the pandemic, even though the capacity of PNG's health system has been extremely limited for many years.

Currently, according to the prime minister, there are only around 500 doctors in the country, as well as less than 4,000 nurses, 3,000 community health workers, and only around 5,000 beds in hospitals or health centres.

Acknowledging that the coronavirus would place great strain on PNG's health system and government in general, Mr Marape has urged the public to adhere to measures such as social distancing to ward off community transmission of covid-19.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape addresses a business discussion in Port Moresby, January 2020.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape addresses a business discussion in Port Moresby, January 2020. Photo: PNG PM Media Unit

PNG has only had one confirmed case in the country so far, an Australian man who has since returned home. But the country's capacity to test for cases is very limited, and the true extent of the virus in PNG could be far different, especially as people presenting with symptoms may assume coronavirus to be malaria, a common disease in this region.

In response to the pandemic, PNG's parliament yesterday extended the country's state of emergency, which was set to expire on Monday, for another two months.

Closed international borders, restrictions on public gatherings and isolation practices remain in place among other measures. The message of social distancing is also being emphasised, although in PNG culture it is having difficulty catching on.

"I cannot safely assure Papua New Guinea that this virus cannot reach our shores," Mr Marape said in parliament.

"We must ensure the public remains informed, and that behavious continues to change, to prevent the spread of the virus from taking place. Whilst education so far remains promising, we cannot yet rest assured that we have avoided the worst."

Meanwhile, Grace Nugi also warned that with widespread belief in sorcery in PNG society, there remained a significant theat that people would increasingly resort to violence if confusion about covid-19 persisted.

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