Papua New Guinea: Health system on the verge of collapse as COVID-19 hits the country

Ghulam Nabi is the interim head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea and describes the difficult situation the Pacific nation is currently facing

25 Mar 21

Up until March 2021, Papua New Guinea had been largely spared of any major COVID-19 outbreak. Within a few weeks, confirmed COVID-19 cases have tripled and increasing numbers of healthcare staff are testing positive, pushing them into home quarantine. The health system in Papua New Guinea is at risk of collapsing as health facilities managing COVID-19 are close to capacity and almost too stretched to provide regular primary healthcare.

What is the situation like in Port Moresby right now?

“The health facilities are struggling to cope with the outbreak. There are significant constraints because a substantial number of healthcare staff have recently tested positive for COVID-19. They have to isolate and can’t go to work.

Various healthcare services have been restricted and the remaining staff are concerned as they expect a major disruption to healthcare services.

Gerehu TB clinic in Port Moresby.

Rita Flynn hospital is one of the two major hospitals in Port Moresby and we have seen that patients visiting the facility are tested, sometimes after hours waiting in the queue. 

Almost 40 per cent of people getting tested at Rita Flynn are testing positive for COVID-19.

We expect more and more severe cases in the coming days and weeks with limited capacity for testing and isolation of patients showing severe symptoms of COVID-19.

In general, the public health messages need to be reinforced. The understanding of the current threat among the people needs to be improved. The government has imposed mask-wearing but most people are not following the guidelines.

There are some rumours and general disbelief about the pandemic. People are only scared when they receive a positive test result. This also leads to stigmatisation by their families and communities.”

What is needed to improve the situation?

“One of the bottlenecks is testing capacity in the country. There are almost no cartridges left, which are required to test PCR samples, and there aren’t enough healthcare workers to carry out the testing.

Additional personal protective equipment, testing capacity and human resources need to be considered fast to provide assistance to the already strained healthcare system. MSF is calling on organisations in the region to act quickly and mobilise to increase their support to Papua New Guinea.

The current COVID-19 outbreak in Papua New Guinea highlights the urgent need for global vaccine equity.

Vaccinations need to be made available quickly for frontline healthcare staff and high-risk groups, as recommended by WHO.

While it’s too late to contain the current outbreak, we need vaccinations as fast as possible in Papua New Guinea to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on the healthcare system and prevent or at least limit further outbreaks.”

How is MSF responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG?

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“Our own response capacity is limited. We tested all our staff members working in our regular tuberculosis projects over the last few days, and almost one third of our local staff members tested positive. They are now in home quarantine and we are monitoring their health.

In October last year, we started supporting the Rita Flynn hospital in Port Moresby with one lab technician and cartridges to analyse samples of PCR tests for COVID-19 infections. We only have enough testing cartridges left to see us through for two weeks, so we are looking to source cartridges internationally.

We are also preparing to partner with Rita Flynn Hospital to manage a makeshift 43-bed COVID-19 treatment facility where we will treat moderately and severely ill patients for COVID-19 from early April.”

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