Australia is sending a medical team to Papua New Guinea as it considers further assistance measures in response to the country’s surge in COVID-19 cases.
It comes after PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape sounded the alarm about the mass outbreak – requesting Australia look at fast-tracking vaccines for health workers to support the country’s strained health system.
Aid groups have warned of an unfolding “catastrophe” in PNG with untested people in the community expected to continue to spread the virus.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said Australia is working closely with PNG’s government to provide further support against the outbreak.
“The government will make decisions on those issues … but we have arranged the deployment of an AUSMAT team ” she told reporters.
“We understand the system is vey strained – it is a major focus for the government and we’ll have more to say on that.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne speaks at an Australian Council for International Development event at Parliament House.
It’s understood the federal government could make an announcement on further assistance measures as soon as Tuesday.
The medical team, which includes an infectious diseases expert, will be sent to help local authorities and assess the emergency management response.
Mr Marape told a press conference on Monday that 2,269 cases of coronavirus had been detected in PNG, including 97 cases in the past 24 hours.
“The number is quite staggering, if we don’t do [a] corrective response to this, our health system will be clogged and we won’t be able to sustain it,” Mr Marape told journalists in Port Moresby.
Mr Marape said he had also asked Australian officials for assistance to help expedite vaccines for local health workers confronting the outbreak.
Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape.
“While waiting on the bigger supply of vaccines to come in, we need to keep our health workers and defend them from being exposed to COVID-19,” Mr Marape said.
“I put to [Australia] if possibly a smaller supply of vaccines could come in at the very earliest so that the health workers are given the defence in the first instance.”
Papua New Guinea is set to implement a “nationwide isolation strategy” – to be announced on Wednesday.
Australia has already committed more than $60 million to PNG’s COVID-19 response and $144.6 million for its vaccine rollout.
The PNG government has signed the regulatory approvals needed to bring in the AstraZeneca vaccine – but the country is currently not expected to get its first batch of vaccines until next month.
PNG has sourced 200,000 AstraZeneca doses from Australia, and 70,000 from India.
The Australian Council for International Development chief executive Marc Purcell said the Australian government needed to immediately deploy 20,000 vaccines and personal protective equipment to frontline health workers.
“The international community must get behind PNG in their time of need. If ever there was a time to dig deep and ‘step-up’ in the Pacific, it’s now,” he said.
“We must grasp the scale and urgency of the situation and its potential to become a catastrophic disaster for both nations.”
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, also said further assistance was urgently needed to support the health response.
“If all we see from Australia is an AUSMAT team of three people, that will not be nearly enough,” he said.
“Anything short of enough vaccines for healthcare workers and other essential workers, and whatever logistical support is needed to make a rollout effective, will be a catastrophe.”