Papua New Guinea is facing a catastrophic COVID outbreak, with nearly 100 new cases daily. Catholic Health Australia and Caritas Australia have joined forces in an emergency appeal that will contribute $250,000 to Catholic Church Health Services in PNG.
CCCHS employs 1400 staff in 247 health care facilities throughout PNG’s provinces, including two district and three rural hospitals.
Speaking from Port Moresby, Project Director Graham Apian and National Secretary Sister Jadwiga Faliszek describe CCCHS’s response and the issues facing their nation.
How has CCCHS dealt with the COVID crisis as it emerged
Graham Apian: The COVID-19 response has been led largely by the PNG Government, but we have been supporting the provincial led response, training health workers on the need to care for themselves, and on the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE). The surge began this year, a rapid increase in National City District (centred on Port Moresby) and Western Province, where most cases are from.
Sister Jadwiga: We are trying to stay connected to all the provinces and are going to their health managers and the nurses and going to the facility level and asking them how they are coping. We speak to them every day. They are asking a lot of questions on what to do.
How are PPE shortages affecting individuals and communities?
Graham: The surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in a number of new measures announced by the State Controller, but this has now doubled the demand for PPEs, most particularly in the health services, where usage for these items is now mandatory. More supplies have been released by the controller, but this has created a demand for more people to be tested and for more safety measures. Each individual thinks they need a mask, hand sanitisers and so forth but if there is a shortage of PPE then our health facilities will be forced to close.
What other problems are being encountered?
Graham: Uncertainty and fear are leading to community discrimination. For example, in one of the provinces one of our health managers was in contact with a suspected patient and she had to self-isolate with her family. She called us up with her worries about how she is now being shunned. Every time she opens the door everyone runs away from her. We know a number of dioceses are sharing similar experiences. They are scared to approach anyone who has come into contact with a suspected infected person.
How is COVID affecting the wider community?
Graham: We are seeing a disruption to normal operations and the supply of goods and services. We are seeing our “informal” sector being affected severely - the street vendors who rely largely on commuters. Now that people are restricted from travel these vendors are not making any money and it is really affecting them.
How would you describe the developing COVID situation?
Graham: It is serious as our vulnerable health system will not be able to cope with the increase in patients admitted. There is also a lot of misinterpretation on messages around COVID19, which is largely due to the low literacy and language barriers. And there are 8000 vaccines - the government is prioritising NCD and Western Province health workers and elderly - but that is not nearly enough.
Sr Jadwiga: We are not ready for a full response to Covid. I was talking today to the Rabaul Diocese. They have 40 staff in isolation and are contemplating closing the hospital. They also have no facilities with which to isolate the staff, some are in their homes with their whole family which is putting them at risk. There is no other space or accommodation for them to isolate, and at the same time the hospital has to be constantly cleaned with disinfectant.
What is most needed?
Graham: We need to set up COVID testing at all entry points at our facilities and stock up with PPE for both health workers and patients and other relevant medical equipment to assess patients. Testing is one of the main obstacles. Our facilities don’t know if a person is positive (to COVID) or not. If we could test people and give them the result at the same time it would lessen our concerns. We are also in the process of educating our health workers on the vaccination. There are a lot of myths and other views on what the vaccine will do. We want to get a clear message to the general public, but our health workers also are not well informed.
How stressful has it been for CCHS staff?
Graham: Very stressful - every province comes up with their own set of problems. It’s not one general problem. We try to address things in a manner that we think is the best solution but that may not always be the best solution for everyone. The problems are constantly evolving. We are trying to keep abreast of all the developments but it’s just too much for us.
How do you believe this money will help?
Graham: The money will be used to purchase PPE kits, train health workers on COVID testing and on equipment and other response mechanisms including improved communication around COVID-19. It will also go towards supporting items such as pulse oximeters, nebulisers and ventilators, and resources that will really be useful in the provinces. But again the main priority is the need to diagnose people properly. That and the PPE are essential. But we know with the help of people in Australia and in PNG we can collaboratively work on a response.