The PNG Government has welcomed the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine as 200,000 doses arrived recently in the most populous Pacific Island nation of more than 9 million people. Yet with health authorities reporting that less than 1 per cent of the population have been vaccinated with the Oxford AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, questions are being asked if this will make a difference.
Administering the vaccine has been described by representatives of UNICEF as the toughest population to convince. Dr Arnold Calo-oy, a specialist with PNG UNICEF, revealed that he and his team were chased out of a rural village while talking to the people about COVID vaccines. The crippling fear of the vaccines is an alarming issue for medical researchers.
“It can be Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, or any other vaccine, (but) Papua New Guineans need to get vaccinated and it is a major hurdle to convince the population. This is the reality – period,” says Dr Livingstone Tavul, a specialist with PNG’s Institute of Medical Research’s (PNGIMR) Vector Borne Diseases Unit.
“We must not forget that vaccinations in PNG have prevented many deaths from polio, tetanus, measles, influenza, hepatitis A & B, rubella, HIV, whooping cough, chicken pox and many more, yet COVID vaccinations are rejected. It simply does not make sense.”
Australia, along with a few mining companies, educational institutions, medical organisations, church institutions, media outlets, WHO, UNICEF and other non-profit organizations are still actively creating awareness campaigns surrounding the virus and vaccines, yet many in PNG feel that they are immune to the virus.
“Others believe that they will be saved through prayer and the power of God completely,” says Sir Peter Barter, PNG’s former Minister for Health and the current patron of PNGIMR.
Comments by readers on the Pacific Advocate’s Facebook page highlight the significant suspicion held by many in PNG about the virus. False information and conspiracy theories are common (the Pacific Advocate has deleted comments that are false and misleading), but most in this deeply Christian nation simply trust God more than politicians.
“We humans as intelligents (sic) of the highest order are gambling with our lives on these. We can’t live to let someone to control your freedom of choice,” says one comment.
“JM (The prime minister) should know that this country has been protected by God almighty.”
“I will only trust my GOD I will no get vaccine.”
“It’s not about a virus. It’s about control.”
Other comments pointed to a deep concern about China’s influence.
“We are NOT needing it in PNG and NO thanks for that too. Have it all by yourself because it’s Chinese disease and NOT PNG disease.”
“The Chinese created the virus and are now creating another virus?”
“The (sic) probably either threatened PNG or offered some attractive deals to PM to officially go on media and promote Chinese vaccine.”
“Country is flooded with fake Chinese good, yet we are accepting Chinese made vaccine.”
“So is the new normal about the government allowing itself to be used easily as pawns by external entities?”
PNGIMR has released a Q&A booklet designed by the Melanesian Foundation to set the record straight, and it was recently launched by Australia’s high commissioner to PNG Jon Philip.
“Materials such as the COVID booklet can dispel false and misleading information that has already caused panic here in PNG,” says Mr Philip.
From the 200,000 doses of the Chinese vaccines, 20,000 will be reserved for Chinese nationals living in PNG, leaving 150,000 for the locals, but this vaccine seems to terrify locals even more.
Sir Peter believes the Chinese Government should be meeting the costs to build awareness and convince the population to get vaccinated.
“The expression of thanks extended by the PNG Government seems to me a horrible over reaction when you consider that the COVID-19 virus originated in China and (its) devastating effect. It has infected and killed millions throughout the world,” said Sir Peter.
“Thank you to China for the vaccines, but we need….the entire population to get vaccinated first. China should accept a large part of this responsibility,” he said.
China’s pledge to assist Pacific Islands’ fight against COVID-19
The Chinese Government has already assisted many Pacific Islands with their fight against the Pandemic, according to Denghua Zhang from the Australian National University’s (ANU) Department of Pacific Affairs.
He said China’s COVID-19 diplomacy in the Pacific consists of four types of activities: foreign aid, sharing information, publicity and the contribution of Chinese organisations and business across the Pacific.
China announced its budget of US$1.9 million to assist the region with the fight against the pandemic. In this grant, PNG received US$300,000. China also donated personal protective equipment to the PNG government. In a bizarre statement, Mr Denghua claimed that the publicity part of China’s contribution included engagement with mainstream media.
“Chinese ambassadors have published articles in newspapers in the Pacific Islands, countries such as Fiji, PNG, Samoa and Tonga, to showcase China’s achievements in COVID-19 control at home and display a willingness to support these countries.”
However Sir Peter said this was not what the region needed. “We are in dire need of awareness, the entire PNG population face extinction and we need the Chinese government to do this without the media accolades,” he said.
With the arrival of the Delta variant now in PNG’s fumbling health system, health specialists are terrified.
“Our Intensive care unit is already overstretched and I pray this this doesn’t cause it to become overwhelmed,” says Dr Glen Mola, a senior clinical consultant and physician at the Port Moresby General Hospital.
“Are we surprised that the COVID-19 Delta variant, or any other variant, is now here? Not at all, it was just a matter of time,” says Dr Livingstone.
“It is unfortunate that we now have an imported case, however PNG has an even heavier battle to face now, given our poorly-resourced health systems,” he says.
Many other smaller Pacific Islands have successfully vaccinated their population, yet the largest island in the Pacific struggles with protecting its own people.
“We all need to be vaccinated and we must all put our heads together to come up with a solution – our future depends on it.”