PNG launches snap restrictions as Covid spike overwhelms hospitals

Port Moresby, March 18 (AFP/APP): Papua New Guinea will shutter schools, limit non-essential movement and make mask-wearing mandatory, the country’s pandemic controller told AFP Thursday, in a bid to stem a Covid-19 surge that has pushed the fragile health system to the brink of collapse.

“All the schools in the country will shut down at the end of this week following a sharp increase” in cases, Pandemic Controller David Manning said, as part of a month-long strategy of “aggressive interventions”.

In the capital Port Moresby, people will be asked not to leave home except for “medical, employment and business purposes” and shops will have to close by 8pm. Provincial lockdowns could also be introduced.

On Tuesday, the country reported a record 128 new cases and experts fear widespread transmission, as testing levels remain low in the country of nine million. There are ominous signs the surge has already overwhelmed the country’s perennially strained health sector.

“Just 100 additional patients that need moderate-to-severe care will collapse the health system in Port Moresby,” said Matt Cannon of the St John Ambulance, which is helping set up an emergency Covid-19 facility in the capital.

“There is also a severe shortage of doctors and nurses,” he added, noting that there are fewer than 1,000 doctors in the entire country. Doctors told AFP on Thursday that several major facilities had been forced to close or reduce capacity because staff had tested positive for the virus.

Port Moresby General Hospital CEO Paki Molumi said around 70 percent of staff had tested positive while Gerehu Hospital, the capital’s second referral hospital, was closed completely. Papua New Guinea rapidly shut its international borders at the beginning of the pandemic, limiting infections to just a few hundred and dodging the worst of the global crisis — until now.

All the provinces of the impoverished South Pacific nation are also “currently experiencing Covid-19 surges,” Manning said.

– Outside help –

Health minister Jelta Wong told AFP on Wednesday the country is braced for a further “spike” in the next two weeks, after a string of well attended memorial services for “father of the nation” former prime minister Michael Somare.

To staunch the crisis, Wong called on drug-maker AstraZeneca to urgently divert one million vaccine doses bought by Australia, a request supported by Canberra. The first deliveries of 8,000 vaccines for frontline workers are expected to arrive from Australia on Monday

Papua New Guinea’s rough terrain of high mountain valleys, dense jungles and a lack of infrastructure make gauging the scale of the emergency difficult. But Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there were reports hospitals in the capital Port Moresby were detecting the virus in about half of new patient admissions.

“Half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive. We’re seeing a large number of healthcare workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with Covid-19,” he said Wednesday.

The vast Ok Tedi mine in the north of the country on Thursday announced it was closing operations for two weeks in response to the outbreak. The copper and gold mine sits in the remote highlands far from the capital, employs thousands of people and accounts for around seven percent of the country’s GDP, according to company figures.

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