Papua New Guinea minister raps Facebook for Covid-19 misinformation

Papua New Guinea Health Minister Jelta Wong said people should not rely on information on Facebook to guide their approach to vaccines. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Papua New Guinea's Health Minister said misinformation shared on Facebook was the biggest threat to its Covid-19 vaccine plans, saying the social media giant must take steps to stop it.

Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the efficacy of vaccines are so entrenched that even front-line health workers are hesitant to take the shot, Health Minister Jelta Wong said at a talk with an Australian think-tank that was streamed online on Thursday (April 1).

"Facebook is our biggest conspiracy theorist platform," Mr Wong said at the Lowy Institute talk, adding that people should not rely on information on Facebook to guide their approach to vaccines.

"Facebook has a lot of influence here. They're supposed to have programmes where they stop these types of things. Facebook must take responsibility of this and stop it."

Facebook was not immediately available for comment.

The company, however, has been vocal about its efforts to take down coronavirus misinformation as well as to promote public health and government accounts as credible information sources.

Mr Wong's comments come as false claims and conspiracies about the coronavirus and vaccines have proliferated on social media platforms during the pandemic. The distrust in Papua New Guinea is unusually deep-seated, local public health leaders say, hurting prospects of recovery for the island nation where infections have spiked.

To dispel worries about vaccines, Mr Wong, Prime Minister James Marape and several other public figures took the AstraZeneca vaccine this week.

It was an attempt "to show our people, especially our health workers, who (have) a series of issues about the vaccine... that we took it and we came out normal", Mr Wong said.

Papua New Guinea, a country of 10 million that was administered by Australia before gaining independence, has so far received 8,000 vaccine doses from Australia's supply.

India has promised another 70,000 doses, while China has committed 200,000 doses for its citizens living in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea had recorded just under 6,000 cases and 60 deaths by Tuesday, latest available figures show. But Australia says that tally vastly underestimates the extent of the crisis as the island does not do mass testing.

Papua New Guinea has imposed a series of lockdown measures amid concerns the surge will strain its health system beyond capacity.

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