Papua New Guinea facing Covid-19 crisis as infection rate rises

Papua New Guinea has recorded a total of 2,173 cases and 21 deaths since the pandemic began. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is facing a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections around the capital Port Moresby, which neighbouring Australia and aid groups fear could overwhelm the country's small and overstretched health system.

The Pacific Friends of Global Health warned if health services are overwhelmed by Covid-19 the treatment of malaria, HIV and tuberculosis would also collapse.

Half the Covid-19 tests from PNG processed by Australia have been positive, prompting calls for faster vaccine delivery.

"Out of the 500 tests that our health authorities have done for PNG, 250 have come back positive," Australia's Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters on Monday.

PNG's Western Province lies within a few kilometres of Australia's northern border, and Queensland laboratories are assisting to investigate the worsening outbreak.

Palaszczuk said Papua New Guinea was "on the doorstep" and she held real concern about the rising infection rate there.

Ninety-seven new cases were recorded on Sunday, bringing the total to 2,269 and 26 deaths, PNG Prime Minister James Marape said on Monday. Almost a quarter of those cases were recorded in the past week, a WHO tally shows.

Covid-19 infections have been recorded in 19 provinces The latest outbreak is centred on the National Capital District in Port Moresby, where more than 1,000 cases have been recorded, and comes after the nation mourned the death of its first prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.

"We were already at this absolute crisis point for the country," Brendan Crabb, chairman of the Pacific Friends of Global Health, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"Added to that is the Grand Chief Michael Somare's commemorations over the past week, which if ever there was a super-spreading event in the middle of an already big epidemic, clearly that's it."

Somare will be buried on Tuesday. Marape told reporters an isolation strategy would be announced on Wednesday.

The national and supreme courts shut on Monday for two weeks after four court staff including two judges tested positive, the court registrar said in a website statement.

The AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is not planned to be rolled out until late April, through the Covax initiative which has allocated one million doses to the Pacific.

"We need Papua New Guinea's 5,000 or so health care workers vaccinated in the next week or two," said Crabb.

Australia has pledged to spend US$407 million (S$547 million) for regional vaccine access covering nine Pacific Island countries.

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