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Behind The COVID-19 Surge In Papua New Guinea


The Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea has seen a surge of COVID-19 cases for several weeks now after having very few cases for nearly a year. Now the health system there is becoming overburdened. There are just not enough medical workers in the country to care for the thousands of people who've gotten sick since the beginning of March and the hundreds more becoming infected every day. Rebecca Kuku is a journalist based in the capital, Port Moresby. She joins me now.

Hey, Rebecca.

REBECCA KUKU: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances, the circumstances being COVID cases were nearly non-existent in Papua New Guinea until last month. What happened?

KUKU: I think basically because a lot of people didn't take COVID seriously, and most of them didn't comply with the new measures that was put in place to protect people like masking up and social distancing. One of the other reasons was the country lost its founding father, and there was a big gathering.

KELLY: This is the - Papua New Guinea's founding father, the first prime minister of the country, who died in February. And then there were - there was a funeral and mass gatherings to mourn, which had a lot of people together, I guess, and allowed the virus to spread.

KUKU: Yeah, there were thousands of people gathered. We had a two-week national haus krai and then followed by the state funeral event. And then everyone flew over to Wewak for the burial, so it was just packed. Even the government knew the risk, but we went on ahead to pay our last respects to him.

KELLY: Give me a little bit more of a sense of what the situation is. I'm told you spent time in a COVID unit in Port Moresby last month. Can you describe what you saw, who you talked to?

KUKU: It was really an eye-opener. The beds were full. There were patients on oxygen, like - and the oxygen tanks were running out. The nurses were running here and there. It's really full inside, and I think there's a shortage of staff as well. The public health system is exhausted from years of neglect by authorities. And with COVID-19 now, it's even worse.

KELLY: What about vaccines? How is the vaccine campaign going in Papua New Guinea?

KUKU: It's the same response, like the first time COVID was talked about. People don't believe in the vaccines. They're afraid that the vaccine is going to kill them. Some even believe that this vaccine is aimed at killing off Black population.

KELLY: Yeah.

KUKU: But there's been good response too. We've had about 1,500 people vaccinated so far, and the rollout is continuing. New vaccines arrived yesterday as well - 132,000 (ph).

KELLY: Is it fair to say then the greater challenge right now is not supply of vaccines, it's convincing people to get the vaccine?

KUKU: Yes, I think the greater challenge right now is to convince people to be vaccinated. There are some doctors posting inaccurate information. COVID vaccines is not good and all that; don't trust it. So there was a debate organized for the doctors to have an argument out where the public could witness it. So they brought in the doctors who didn't believe, and they brought in the doctors who believed. And the University of Papua New Guinea hosted this debate. Yeah, so they are trying their best to get this misinformation now.

KELLY: That is Rebecca Kuku, a journalist based in Port Moresby. That's the capital of Papua New Guinea.

Thank you very much, Rebecca.

KUKU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.