The emergency rooms are heaving, health care workers are falling sick, and misinformation about the coronavirus and its vaccines is running rife. It has all left Papua New Guinea, a tropical island nation just north of Australia, in the grip of a deadly crisis, as a tripling of infections over the past month has swamped an already fragile health care system.
Papua New Guinea did not have a single confirmed coronavirus case in the first few months of the pandemic, and was only lightly affected until early this year. It has now reported more than 4,100 cases, and 39 virus-related deaths, the vast majority of them since mid-February.
About one in 10 health workers at the country’s major hospital in Port Moresby, the capital, have tested positive. In field hospitals, workers sweating beneath protective equipment are rushing between beds to tend to the dying. One patient suffering an asthma attack died in a hospital parking lot.
“We fear that we are going to fill all these beds, and then we will have nowhere else to continue to care for Covid patients,” said Mangu Kendino, an emergency physician at Port Moresby General Hospital. “We’re tired, we’re exhausted, we’re fatigued.”
The crisis in Papua New Guinea is another reminder that the pandemic is far from over. And it is the kind of problem that public health experts have warned about, as wealthy countries buy up the world’s vaccine stockpiles while smaller and poorer nations are left with cap in hand.
“They have challenges accessing health care at the best of times,” said Rob Mitchell, an emergency physician specializing in triage in the Pacific. “I fear that the current case numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”