Papua New Guinea’s Covid-19 crisis may be much worse than officially reported, with new data Friday revealing soaring illness rates as hospitals battle to fight a rapidly deteriorating situation.
Officially the Melanesian nation of nine million people has confirmed 245 deaths and detected just under 23,000 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began.
But World Health Organisation-managed data shows suspected infections are almost three times higher at 60,918 – and even that may vastly understate the true breadth of the crisis.
Separate figures from 700 clinics nationwide collected by the Department of Health show at least 2.6 million people – more than a quarter of the population – presented with flu or pneumonia-like symptoms between March 2020 and September.
The country’s Pandemic Controller David Manning said that in a normal year fewer than one million similar cases are recorded, although the historical data is incomplete.
The government has long acknowledged that the virus may be much more prevalent than the number of confirmed cases would suggest.
Until now low rates of testing had partially obscured the severity of a crisis, but health care workers say patients are now flooding in and an already stretched field hospital in Port Moresby is struggling to increase capacity.
“Tragically, we are witnessing more people become very ill,” said Matt Cannon, chief executive of St John Ambulance Papua New Guinea.
“Anyone with ‘flu’ like illness is likely to have Covid-19. Ambulance personnel are caring for them as though they might have Covid-19.
“People are presenting to the hospital when their symptoms are severe. Sadly, we are seeing many dying hours after arriving.”
The crisis has been deepened by misinformation about foreign-made vaccines and the seriousness of the disease being spread on social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp.
A total of 207,207 vaccines have been administered, according to the national pandemic response center.
Earlier this year, an internal government poll suggested that up to a quarter of people in some Papua New Guinean provinces would refuse a vaccine.
A separate informal survey by an emergency department physician of 130 colleagues in Port Moresby showed 24% would refuse a vaccine and 37% were unsure.
There are early signs that skepticism about vaccines and the virus may also be waning, with queues now forming at some clinics as people rush to get jabbed.
But already the highly transmissible Delta variant is believed to have spread widely across the country despite international border closures.
Treatment is still patchy, with oxygen masks, cylinders and medicines in short supply in a country with a chronic lack of medical staff even before the pandemic began.
There are believed to be 450 doctors in the entire country and about 2,000 registered nurses.
Speaking to the Australia-based Devpolicy blog, Win Nicholas, a Port Moresby resident and former public policy student, said the crisis was accelerating.
“More than 10 people I know died in a period of just over one day,” he said. “We call them the silent dead.”