Papua New Guinea

Backlash against PNG COVID burial claim

Update 24 December 

Concerned Papua New Guineans have refused to blame recent mass burials on Covid-19 deaths.

Health authorities last week conducted the first of planned burials in Port Moresby across makeshift caskets and unmarked graves.

Government officials ordered the ceremony after claiming a massive spike of case numbers in recent months were responsible for the 300 bodies piling up – five times the capacity of the mortuary – in the country’s capital and largest city.

But many of The Pacific Advocate readers said the deaths were not related to the pandemic.

“Mass burial is (a) normal happening in Port Moresby when relatives do not claim their dad from the mortuary,” Charles Kiki said on The Pacific Advocate’s Facebook page.

“This has nothing to do with Covid-19.”

Many Papua New Guineans were angered that extra bodies were being labelled Covid-19 deaths.

Most pointed out that recent mass burials have nothing to do with the worldwide pandemic.

“It is not a first of its kind, but a common practice in the country and especially frequent in the bigger centres of PNG,” Simon Munguas said.

The Pacific Advocate has not claimed that mass burials did not exist before the outbreak of Covid-19.

The first of the mass burials relating to coronavirus held on the outskirts of Port Moresby counted 63 bodies that included nine children.

Hospital and morgue employees were among the few people to attend the service, but the national government also invited the media to cover the deaths.

Backlash against PNG COVID burial claim
Papua New Guinean health officials bury mass graves into the ground after more deaths from Covid-19 take the lives of the country’s citizens. Picture: Andrew Kutan/AFP

Based on past mass burials, the ceremony cost the government more than $US30,000 (K110,000).

“Misinformation is unhealthy. Please stop all the nonsense,” Mado Maraki said.

This susceptibility comes after a Pacific Advocate survey found that 35 per cent of its respondents dismissed taking vaccines to protect against Covid-19, believing that it may be worse than the virus.

A further 20 per cent surveyed have put their faith in God to protect them and have also refused to be vaccinated.

Hospital medical services director Dr Kone Sobi told the media, “there has been an increase in the number of bodies brought into the mortuary each day during the current (Covid-19) surges”.

But Alois Jerewai was not accepting the doctor’s word that a more significant wave was behind the extra bodies piling up in the Port Moresby mortuary.

“It was a Pauper’s burial, not Covid-19 deaths,” he said.

December 13

Papua New Guinea has carried out the first in a series of mass burials of bodies that remain unclaimed in the country’s largest hospital.

PNG hospital and government officials ordered the crisis ceremony after more than 300 bodies had piled up at the Port Moresby general hospital morgue, overwhelming a facility designed to hold just 60 deceased.

The first burial of 63 people who died of Covid-19 has exposed a weak health system that is struggling to cope.

The bodies, including those of nine children, were buried at the nine-mile cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby.

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There were no known families present at the burials, but about 40 people including a handful of hospital and morgue employees attended.

Funerals are usually a vital cultural rite in the country where, under more normal circumstances, ceremonies known as haus krais can span days.

Masked-up officials removed each of the sheet-clad remains of victims from shipping containers and placed each of them in a wooden box.

Some of the makeshift caskets had names scrawled onto their lids and they were stacked on top of one another into a four-metre deep trench.

“The hospital is saddened by the fact that a mass burial is not our Melanesian way of sending off the dead,” hospital medical services director Dr Kone Sobi said.

Mass burial highlights COVID tragedy
Papua New Guinea health officials bury mass graves into the ground after more deaths from Covid-19 take the lives of the country’s citizens. Picture: Courtesy of The National

“This is an unfortunate situation beyond our control.

“There has been an increase in the number of bodies brought into the mortuary each day during the current (Covid-19) surges.

“As a result, the hospital was burdened with the issue of overcrowding.”

Mass burials for more than 50 bodies are an expensive exercise, costing $US25,000 (K90,000) each with three to four conducted annually.

Dr Sobi said the hospital was in the process of identifying the remaining unclaimed bodies for another mass burial.
“We have sent out notices and are giving relatives time to come and claim the bodies,” he said.

A further 122 bodies that lie in the morgue were confirmed to have been positive for coronavirus, hospital officials said.

Some of the unclaimed bodies have been stored in the morgue since March this year, as authorities tried to contact relatives and secure funding to carry out their last rites.

PNG officials have detected about 35,000 cases in a population of nearly nine million.

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