PNG welcomes Australia’s promise of 8,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses as infections increase at ‘alarming’ rate


One of Papua New Guinea’s leading doctors says Australia’s promise to share COVID-19 vaccine doses is of vital importance.

“We desperately need the vaccine because our health workers are being infected at an alarming rate,” Glen Mola told 7.30.

In hotel quarantine in Cairns, the 74-year-old obstetrician is hoping to get vaccinated in Australia before returning to work in Port Moresby. He said 8 per cent of pregnant women coming into his Port Moresby maternity unit were testing positive for COVID-19 and he was also rapidly losing staff.

“We’re losing about 10 midwives, doctors, nurses every week, and 10 is about 5 per cent of our workforce,” he said.

“So within a month or two, we’ll be down to 50 per cent staffing levels and we won’t be able to maintain the service.

“The COVID-19 ward at Port Moresby General [Hospital] is getting full very quickly and now medical wards are being taken over by COVID patients.”

Professor Mola welcomed Wednesday’s announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia would share 8,000 vaccine doses and provide a range of other health supplies.

But he warned PNG was not out of the woods yet, and frontline health workers would need a second vaccine dose 12 weeks after their first.

“Even if we get the vaccine this week, it will only start producing immunity in two or three weeks’ time,” he told 7.30.

Brendan Crabb from the Burnet Institute warned the pandemic in PNG already appeared to be getting out of control.

“In all likelihood, we have thousands of cases there at the moment, and that means in a week or two it will be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands,” he said.

“You saw how much difficulty developed countries such as the US and the UK have dealing with their COVID surges.

“Can you imagine trying to do that in a health system only 1 per cent as well equipped?”

It’s a difficult time for PNG expatriate Olive Tau Davis, who now lives in Cairns but has family in Port Moresby.

“Back home, it’s a village environment where socialising is very much part of the community life, so there is no such thing as social distancing,” she said.

“And knowing that hospitals in PNG are not well resourced, it’s a huge concern.

“At the same time, there are Papua New Guineans who think that because of their Christian beliefs that they will be OK. There are others who think that COVID is a hoax.”

Professor Crabb said he was also concerned about the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.

“[It] is rife there. It’s big here, but it’s an even bigger problem in PNG,” he said.

The COVID-19 emergency in PNG also poses a threat to Australia, especially in the Torres Strait, where people are living only kilometres from the PNG mainland.

Queensland Health has fast-tracked its vaccination programme in the three most northern Torres Strait islands: Saibai, Boigu and Dauan.

Speaking from Saibai island, the Torres and Cape Health Service northern director Marlow Coates said the community was responding well.

“[There’s a] very positive response from the community. They’re very aware of the risk and the risk of coronavirus to themselves and their families, and there’s a real community feel and spirit about protecting one another,” he said.

“We’re seeing that now with good numbers coming into the clinic.”

These Torres Strait islands are closest to PNG’s western province — a remote region with no evidence of COVID-19 testing.

Dr Coates said it was difficult to tell whether coronavirus has reached the province.

“It’s very difficult to give a straight answer to that,” he said.

“How much coronavirus is or may be in the western province is a bit of an unknown,” he said.