Call for proper enforcement of measures to contain Covid in PNG

10:57 am on 29 July 2020

A Papua New Guinea academic says without enforcement of health measures it will be difficult to contain Covid-19.

CBD of Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby.

CBD of Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

PNG's capital has begun a two-week lockdown after dozens of cases of the virus were confirmed in Port Moresby over recent days.

Yesterday, as the extent of the crisis in Moresby became more clear, the government introduced renewed emergency measures including a night-time curfew and a lockdown during which only essential businesses can operate.

Henry Ivarature from the Australian National University's Australia Pacific Security College, said that until now, despite government advice that everyone must wear masks in public, there had been little adherence to this and other core health measures.

Dr Ivarature, who had been advocating for a lockdown, said measures must be enforced properly.

"You can issue as many pandemic regulations as you wish, but if you are not enforcing it on the ground, then you are defeating the whole purpose of protecting your citizens from this virus or any other disease that you want to prevent from spreading across the community."

Dr Ivarature, who is currently in Port Moresby, was interviewed by RNZ Pacific shortly before Prime Minister James Marape announced the two-week lockdown yesterday.

The academic lamented that so far many residents in the capital had not been taking the recommended health measures seriously enough. For instance very few people were wearing masks in public, or maintaining social distancing, he said.

Furthermore, the national habit of chewing betelnut was also continuing unchecked.

"People continue to chew and spit betelnut spittle in public," he explained.

"As I understand it, Covid hangs in the air through spittle and droplets. Now betelnut is probably the worst thing that can be around for a virus like this. So perhaps the environment for Covid is really ripe."

A sign about the betelnut ban in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea

Authorities in Port Moresby have tried unsuccessfully to stop the public sale of betelnut. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

He said when the pandemic began and the PNG government introduced a State of Emergency in March, it adopted the same sort of defensive strategy that many other countries did, including border closures and restrictions on public movement.

According to him, the country's security forces did an adequate job of restricting public movement in the early phases of the pandemic.

However, he said in his view, the government had erred over the intervening months, as the surge in cases developed, by investing more in a security approach to the pandemic rather than one based on public health policy

"I think that's coming back to hurt the government now. The investment in public health measures and processes probably would have prepared Papua New Guinea now to deal with the spike in cases in NCD (National Capital District)."

The weekend surge in Covid-19 cases, taking the country's total number of confirmed cases past 60, came as PNG's Covid-19 response team of health officials ramped up testing - there were 535 tests on Sunday alone.

Yet, to date only around 10,000 tests had been conducted since the pandemic emerged, and officials fear the spread of the coronavirus is already widespread in the capital.