Australian vaccine diplomacy tested as COVID slams Papua New Guinea

SYDNEY – Papua New Guinea has long seemed to have escaped the worst of the coronavirus crisis. But an increase in the number of cases since February has brought the remote Pacific island’s largest hospital to the brink of collapse.

For the country’s much larger neighbor, Australia, the outbreak is seen as a serious threat as well as a critical moment in a wider campaign of “vaccine diplomacy”.

“If the infections continue at the same rate… it won’t be long before we reach a staff level where it is not possible to continue the health service,” said Professor Glen Mola, Senior Gynecologist and for a long time. member of staff at Port Moresby General Hospital in the capital. “It is absolutely mind-boggling.”

Papua New Guinea has around 500 doctors for its 9 million people, or one in 17,000. Coronavirus cases have tripled in one month, bringing the total to 5,349 with 49 deaths, and low testing rates may hide the true scale of the outbreak. Prime Minister James Marape believes a quarter of the population could be infected.

The virus is now invading hospital staff. In a single week, 120 staff at the General Hospital contracted COVID-19 and were forced into isolation.

After a photo of a dying woman in the hospital parking lot circulated on social media, the facility’s CEO warned that such deaths were possible.

The risks extend beyond the coast of Papua New Guinea: to the south, the Australian state of Queensland has seen a record number of cases in its hotel quarantine program and has the most active infections in the country. The majority of positive cases in hotel quarantine are people who have returned from Papua New Guinea.

While Australia has handled the pandemic well, outbreaks in its hotel quarantine system have highlighted the precarious nature of this success. In Victoria state, quarantine failures were responsible for 768 deaths, more than 18,000 infections and months of strict containment in Melbourne last year. As far as Queensland is concerned, the state’s cultural, geographic and economic link with Papua New Guinea means that the island’s struggle poses a real and current danger.

The Australian government has pledged to help Papua New Guinea contain the epidemic. He has sent nearly 8,500 doses of vaccine to immunize frontline workers in his former colony and plans to distribute more once he begins to scale up local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

These efforts are only a small part of Australia’s vaccine diplomacy in the Pacific. As a member of the Quad – an informal but increasingly publicized group with the United States, India and Japan – he pledged A $ 100 million ($ 76 million) to help distribute $ 1 billion vaccines to countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands by the end of 2022. This is in addition to the Australian Regional Vaccine Access and Health Safety Initiative of A $ 523 million for the Pacific and the South East Asia.

A woman washes clothes in the village of Hanuabada in Port Moresby harbor in this 2018 file photo. Papua New Guinea has about one doctor for every 17,000 people. © Reuters

Even after the crisis at its doorstep has been resolved and the pandemic has subsided, some analysts expect Australia to play a critical role in helping the Pacific region repair the economic damage and move forward. before. It competes for influence with China, which in January expressed its willingness to supply vaccines to Pacific states as well.

The Australian government already has its “Pacific Step-up” initiative, unveiled by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016. The policy aims to strengthen regional engagement in the region and counter Beijing’s growing weight.

At the heart of this “escalation” is Australia’s Pacific Infrastructure Finance Facility, which will finance infrastructure through a combination of A $ 1.5 billion in loans and A $ 500 million in grants. Operational since 2019, it has already supported three major projects: a solar farm in Papua New Guinea, a hydroelectric system in the Solomon Islands and a submarine cable in Palau. Canberra is expected to sign A $ 300 million in funding for other projects in the coming months.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that the Pacific needs $ 30 billion in infrastructure investment by 2030. The challenge is to identify commercially viable projects, according to Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy’s Pacific Islands program. Institute.

Many investors are wary of financing plans in small, remote economies. China does not appear to share these concerns. “But the reality is that these projects [backed by China] have now been produced and it turns out they are overpriced and of varying quality, ”said Pryke. “I think governments in the Pacific have become a lot smarter because they only have a limited number of bites in these projects due to their limited access to debt. “

He said infrastructure has become a “contested space” between China and Australia, and vaccines are another “geopolitical battleground”. While welcoming the Quad’s vaccine commitment, he said the reality is that the deployment across the Pacific will likely be “more complicated, much more bilateral and driven by individual parties.”

Road to Port Moresby built with Chinese government funding: The Asian Development Bank estimates the Pacific needs $ 30 billion in infrastructure investment by 2030. © Reuters

Either way, island states need vaccines – and fast.

“The economic devastation in the Pacific is severe and Papua New Guinea is a real health crisis,” said Pryke. “These countries can’t afford to wait, their economies will kick in with travel, and that won’t happen until there is a significant deployment of vaccines.”

But like China, Australia could face skepticism about its foreign policy ambitions.

In the past, Australia has been criticized for engaging with the Pacific only in times of crisis. Australia’s action on climate change at the national level, or lack thereof, is also viewed negatively in island countries which are among the most sensitive. Last year, 14 Pacific leaders condemned Australia’s Paris climate target as “one of the weakest” from an open leader to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“There is a certain degree of skepticism in the region that the only reason Australia is showing interest now is because China is showing interest, and if China were to leave, the Australia would forget the region again, ”said Tess Newton Cain, project manager. head of the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute.

Newton Cain believes that there is not just an economic opportunity, but a moral imperative, to work with China to support the development of the Pacific. She said Australia should not allow geopolitical concerns “whether driven from Canberra or Washington to hamper countries facing a humanitarian crisis.”

Newton Cain suggested further loosening labor mobility laws to boost regional economies. This could expand an existing seasonal workers program that allows people from eight Pacific island countries and East Timor to work in areas of Australia facing staff shortages.

This is a view shared by one of Australia’s leading banks, ANZ, which also advocates faster deployment of vaccines across the region and support for infrastructure to spur a tourism-led job recovery.

But these are questions Australia must think about another day. Right now, time is running out for Papua New Guinea. Mola from Port Moresby General Hospital says the country faces huge logistical challenges, when it comes to distributing vaccines and stopping the outbreak. Few reliable roads connect Port Moresby to rural parts of the country.

With most of the elderly population living in the latter, the country will be in serious trouble if the epidemic spreads.

Another complication is growing skepticism about vaccines – especially after the opposition leader called for a halt to injections given by Australia for safety reasons.

Mola believes the situation is so dire that Australian Defense Forces personnel may need to be deployed to assist Papua New Guinea, as in previous crises. Ultimately, he doesn’t see easy solutions.

“It’s hard to see how this is all going to work, actually,” he said. “Pray for us.”

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