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PNG and Fiji have both faced COVID disasters. Why did one vaccine grow and the other stop?

Daily infections reached more than 1,800 mid-July – a huge number for a country with only 900,000 people. The crisis caused 647 deaths.

Fast forward a few months and PNG and Fiji are going in opposite directions. More than 95 percent of eligible Fijians over the age of 18 have now received their first sting, and 80 percent are now fully vaccinated.

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In contrast, PNG is in the hands of a major wave, with less than 1 percentage of the total population fully vaccinated. PNG follows much of the world.

Why have two Pacific countries that share Melanesian cultural ties treated their vaccines so differently?

It’s not about geography or a vaccine

Fiji’s daily infection rate is today 4 percent of what it was at the top, and it falls. On average less than 50 new cases are currently reported daily.

In PNG, the official infection rate is now on average a little less than 300 new cases every day, but this drastically underscores the reality of what is happening in the country.

Extremely low test speeds just can’t be trusted. Reportedly the country’s health data shows 2.6 million cases of flu and pneumonia symptoms over the past year, and Port Moresby General Hospital are now reporting a positive COVID tests of 60 percentage. Like other hospitals across the country, it risks being overwhelmed by the virus.

Port Moresby Test Center COVID-19.

Source: Papua New Guinea National Health Department / Facebook

It’s not just about vaccine supply. At this stage of the global crisis, PNG, like Fiji, has received many vaccine deliveries – mainly from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. COVAX vaccine delivery initiative.

In fact thousands of early deliveries of PNG were wasted because the health authorities were unable to use them. The PNG government has just done the best out of a bad situation re-donating 30,000 vials donated from New Zealand to Vietnam.

We can also ignore any suggestion Australia, as the main regional donor, somehow favors one country over the other.

The Australian government has given high priority to providing vaccines to both countries in recent months. Its assistance has also extended to educational and logistical efforts, along with targeted medical emergency teams and support for those with expertise and ability on earth.

Nor is it really about distribution.

Image to read more article 'How Australia will help its neighbors vaccinate people against coronavirus'

The geography of PNG presents some difficult physical barriers to distribution of vaccines – its legendary mountainous terrain and the remoteness of many of its inhabitants are well known.

But companies from Digicel to South Pacific Brewery manage to penetrate the most inaccessible areas with their products despite these difficulties. And the authorities manage to vote across the nation every five years, which is one of the most extraordinary democratic exercises in the world.

With its own rugged terrain and scattered populations across many islands, Fiji has also faced serious physical impediments to its vaccine development.

The main difference: leadership and belief

We approach the problem when we think in terms of faith, understanding and belief.

Fijians have accepted the vaccination as one, following the guidance of their medical authorities and in accordance with the company “no stings, no workPolitics of its prime minister, former military commander Frank Bainimarama.

Fiji residents line up outside a vaccine center in Suva.

Source: LEON LORD / AFP by Getty Images

In PNG, the term “vaccine hesitation” underscores the problem. One survey earlier this year showed a critical low will to take the vaccine, and another a survey of university students showed that only 6 percent wanted it.

Vaccine patrols have received death threats in some places, and any politician who speaks in favor of vaccination risks a political backlash. Strong efforts are now being made to overcome this problem, with the health authorities preparing a new approach and iconic figures such as rugby star Mal Meninga supports the advertising effort.

These drastically contrasting images cannot be fully explained by differences in educational standards, or the quality of medical advice and attention.

Sure, Fiji is leading PNG in this regard – Fiji has 99 percent literacy compared to just over 63 percent in PNG, according to the latest available figures. And while Fiji’s medical system has its challenges, the decline in PNG’s health services due to a chronic lack of investment puts it in a very different category.

In PNG, confidence in leadership has weakened after decades of frustration over growing wealth inequality and concerns about governance and transparency.

A health worker is administering a COVID-19 test in Papua New Guinea.

Source: AFP

Rather than rely on official sources, people often search for information on Facebook and other social networks, and are thus vulnerable to the dangerous nonsense affected by the anti-vaccine movement in the West.

I know how quickly Papuan New Guineans are also getting into what is happening in neighboring Australia. They will have seen how the public debate here has hampered confidence in the AstraZeneca brand – the mainstay of its own vaccine supply.

But perhaps most critical is the sense that many Papuan New Guineans have developed a fatalistic belief that COVID is just another healthy challenge to add to the litany other serious problems faced by the country, among them maternal mortality, malaria and tuberculosis.

It’s almost as if they believe everything is somehow important PNG. But it doesn’t have to be.

Ian Kemish is a former Australian diplomat who served as High Commissioner to PNG from 2010 to 2013. He currently chairs the Kokoda Track Foundation, which receives some funding from the Australian government for his work to combat COVID-19 in PNG, and is a Pacific representative for the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Education. He is a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute’s Pacific program.




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