‘There are no COVID restrictions, and all our provincial borders are still open. People are travelling every day from place to place and the spread of the virus is now felt throughout the country.’
So said Joseph Lakai, General Director of Baptist Union PNG, about the rapid transmission of COVID-19 across Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea.
The health situation in PNG is dire. On 1 April, the PNG Epidemic Response Group—an alliance of leading Medical Research Institutes, Australian churches, professional services, and development and humanitarian organisations operating in PNG—released an alarming joint statement: ‘Community transmission of COVID-19 across almost every province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is growing, with hundreds of new cases being identified daily. Epidemiological estimates are that infections could have now reached over 100,000 cases and could reach one million cases within a few weeks,’ the statement said.
PNG has a population of nine million.
‘Essential healthcare across PNG has been disrupted,’ Professor Brendan Crabb, CEO of the Burnet Institute, and group spokesperson said. ‘Hospitals and healthcare centres have reached capacity and are now closing. . . PNG is facing a potential humanitarian crisis on a scale that have not been seen before.’
Three hospitals supported by Baptist Union PNG—Tinsley Rural Hospital, Telefomin District Hospital, and Kompiam Rural Hospital—and are amongst those facing closure – all because they have run out of personal protective equipment (PPE) – placing the staff in a precarious position.
‘The hospital staff were in a state of confusion, not knowing whether to attend to patients or not,’ Joseph Lakai said. They feared catching the virus and passing it onto their families.’
According to Joseph, interaction—including storytelling, being in big groups, and having extended families living together—is a very strong part of PNG’s culture. ‘If one catches the virus, it’s easily spread,’ he said.
Without simple measures like PPE, the only option is to close the hospitals – but the impact will be tragic. ‘Many people will die because we serve rural communities in very difficult circumstances,’ Joseph said.
One of the hospitals, Tinsley Rural Hospital in Western Province, services 40,000 people. The concern is not just COVID ‘but other infectious diseases which are also killing hundreds in PNG. So, we have this situation developing now,’ Joseph said.
Baptist Union PNG approached Baptist World Aid, desperate for help to secure enough PPE to keep the three hospitals open. The response to the resulting PNG COVID Emergency appeal was both immediate and far more than anyone imagined.
‘I feel overjoyed and feel like crying when I see the overwhelming support that our Australian friends can provide just in a short phase of time,’ Joseph said. ‘Thank God – it’s a blessing to have our Australian friends connected through Baptist World Aid. Thank you.’
The PPE—consisting of 2,750 face masks, 1100 face shields, 330 protective coveralls, 3,000 pairs of gloves, 550 pairs of shoe covers, and 300 bottles of hand sanitizer—is now being delivered to the three hospitals.
‘I am sure the hospitals will remain open,’ a very happy Joseph Lakai said. ‘I am sure we will continue to operate the hospitals because COVID-19 is here to stay.’
PNG’s Department of Community Development and Religion has requested that churches play an active role in combating the spread of COVID-19. The support to the three Baptist-run hospitals in Tinsley, Telefomin and Kompiam, aligns with that request.
Baptist World Aid’s PNG COVID Emergency appeal is remaining open to provide continuing support to the people of PNG.