Papua New Guinea Battles COVID-19 and Health Workers’ Vaccine Scepticism
Papua New Guinea (PNG), like many other Pacific Island countries, successfully held COVID-19 at bay last year, aided by early shutting of national borders. However, by March this year, the pandemic was surging in the most populous Pacific Island nation, and by July, it had reported 17,282 cases of the virus and 175 fatalities.
PNG has a steep battle against the virus ahead, made more problematic by a high rate of refusal by health workers to take the vaccine. PNG’s Health Minister, Jelta Wong, stressed in an interview with Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy in April that “the vaccine will be the key to containing COVID-19 in our country.”
But in Eastern Highlands Province in the country’s rural interior, Dr Max Manape, the province’s Director of Public Health, told IPS that “in our province, there is a huge COVID-19 hesitancy due to so much negativity of COVID-19 vaccinations in social media and we are finding it very hard to convince our fellow frontline workers, including health workers.” By early July, only 23.3 percent of all health and essential workers in the province were vaccinated, including 329 health workers.
The situation is causing wider community concern. “Health workers are the frontline and first responders in this pandemic, and their refusal places them at a greater risk to contract the virus. This will lead to the feared collapse of our struggling health system, and the roll-on effect of other deaths from preventable diseases and maternal health issues created by a lack of manpower,” a spokesperson for the PNG National Council of Women told IPS.
In April, the country was supplied with 132,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the first batch of a total supply of 588,000 doses by COVAX, the global alliance of organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), working to achieve equitable vaccine access. The Australian Government also supplied eight thousand doses. The national vaccination rollout began in early May, with priority given to frontline responders.
Yet progress has been very slow. By this month, only 59,125 people in a national population of about 9 million had been vaccinated, including 7,844 health workers. The largest group of healthcare recipients, about 1,150, were located in the capital, Port Moresby.
PNG’s Health Minister says there are numerous challenges to achieving widespread inoculation. “In this country, we’ve never had an adult vaccine go out, we’ve always had the children’s ones, and that has worked really well. It is going to be a real challenge for us to do this vaccination rollout…The biggest thing will be education. Our people need to be educated enough to know that this vaccine will help them in the future,” Wong said.
More than 80 percent of people in PNG live in rural and remote areas where logistic and communication challenges are the greatest. Here scepticism of the vaccine is high. Only 12 percent of all health and essential workers in remote Enga Province in the northwestern highlands region have been vaccinated. “The uptake of the vaccine is very poor in Enga Province. Frontline health workers at the hospital have mostly refused the vaccine,” Dr David Mills, Director of Rural Health and Training at Kompiam District Hospital in the province, told IPS.
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