As the COVID numbers in PNG grow exponentially, Australia is scrambling to provide support. The support includes vaccines for frontline health workers, a large Medical Assistance Team (MAT), PPE, tents for isolation wards and a long list of other supplies. From what we know so far, Australia will be working on the ground with the PNG response system, WHO and UNICEF. New Zealand appears to be unaccountably absent from this picture of urgent support required for a Pacific neighbour in trouble.
The alarming growth of COVID in PNG is relatively new although it might have been predicted given the very low testing numbers. The fact that recent cases are spread right across PNG’s provinces also raises suspicions that there has been unidentified spread in case numbers for a while. The picture looks increasingly like that of Italy a year ago, when initially small numbers of cases grew exponentially and eventually overwhelmed the health system in much of northern Italy.
The dangers in this situation are not only PNG ones. Unmitigated spread of the virus appears to give rise to new variants that can make vaccines less effective. This could impact Australia and New Zealand. Spread is also a worry with respect to Solomon Islands, which is close to Bougainville and informal exchanges are common across the border.
While PNG’s key regional relationship is with Australia with whom it shares important historical and geographical ties, New Zealand also has a long and strong relationship with PNG. At any given time, PNG is either New Zealand’s largest aid partner or second largest reflecting both its development needs and its size. It is the largest Pacific nation geographically (larger than New Zealand) with a population between 8 and 9 million. New Zealand has been active across the years in providing support to PNG that goes well beyond the projects in the aid programme. We have a long security relationship and not just in Bougainville. We were a key support partner in PNG’s hosting of APEC in 2018 and we provided significant support during the disastrous magnitude 7.5 earthquake of 2018. It is therefore particular puzzling that we seem to be absent from this disaster.
There has been a tendency in recent years for New Zealand to define its Pacific relationship largely in terms of Polynesia. But even given that orientation, if this were a traditional security problem in PNG, New Zealand would have already activated its national security system to address the situation. If it hasn’t happened already, that needs to happen now.
COVID support to PNG needs to be undertaken in coordination with the PNG system and other partners, as Australia is doing but New Zealand needs to start an internal process of defining possible contributions. Defining a New Zealand contribution is no doubt more difficult because of the demands of our own COVID response. That said, a small Medical Assistance Team should be possible. PPE might be another area where we could contribute. New Zealand has options on a number of different vaccines which it now will not require having secured sufficient supplies of Pfizer. Could we release our option for purchase of Astra Zeneca to PNG? The Missionary Aviation Fellowshipwhich has many New Zealanders on its staff is accustomed to flying into remote areas. Could we provide funding for MAF to fly medical supplies and vaccines into remote areas.
As a key Pacific partner with a reputation for coming to the party when trouble hits, New Zealand needs to move quickly to help address the situation in PNG.
Marion Crawshaw is a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and a former New Zealand High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
Image credit: WHO Papua New Guinea Facebook page.