Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Papua New Guinea battling COVID, Australia must increase its ‘vaccine diplomacy’

As our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, struggles to contain a raging COVID outbreak, questions arise about how much Australia is doing to help. Is emergency aid Australia enough in a country whose health infrastructure was already under siege before the pandemic?

A supporting question is whether Canberra’s “vaccine diplomacy” in the Indo-Pacific is losing ground against an aggressive Chinese push to make its Sinovac and Sinoform vaccines available throughout the region.

It is a classic case of soft diplomatic power meeting a health emergency in Australia’s own strategic backyard.

China has distributed more than 1 billion doses of its vaccines to nearly 100 countries, with a specific focus on Asia and the Pacific. 400 million doses have been distributed in Southeast Asia and about 300,000 in the Pacific.

Australia’s contribution to its territory is about 6 million doses of its AstraZeneca reserves. But much remains to be done: only 1.7% of adults in PNG are fully vaccinated.

Read more: Prashant went a year without COVID. Now, it’s all in danger

The Morrison government insists it is doing everything it can to help its neighbor in the dire circumstances for a country beset with development issues.

International Development and Pacific Minister Jade Cesselja said in an interview that Australia is “moving heaven and earth” to assist PNG with vaccine supplies and deploying Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) to help on the ground. has done.

Late last month, Canberra sent its sixth AUSMAT to PNG since the COVID-19 crisis began, to help lift flagged vaccination rates.

Minister Z Ceselja says Australia has ‘moved heaven and earth’ to assist PNG with COVID vaccines.
Darren England/You

This is in contrast to Fiji where over 80% of the eligible population – those over the age of 18 – have been fully vaccinated with Australian aid.

While the comparison between Fiji (population 900,00) and PNG (8 million) may not be fair, in the sense that the former is facing development problems and the latter is facing nowhere close to the geographical constraints of both. The difference between can hardly be more telling.

Read more: PNG and Fiji were both facing COVID devastation. Why has the rollout of one vaccine increased and the other stalled?

No one pretends to receive vaccines in remote areas in PNG, whose wide area lacks electricity and, therefore, refrigeration for vaccine storage, is nothing but a major challenge. However, overlaying the status of PNG is the problem of vaccine hesitancy – perhaps best described as a “vaccine phobia”.

According to a survey among university students, only 6% believed they needed vaccination. One explanation for the level of vaccine hesitation among educated Papua New Guineans is the low level of trust in PNG’s public institutions, according to former Australian Ambassador to Port Moresby Ian Kemish.

Perhaps most troubling, many in Papua New Guinea have developed a fatalistic belief that COVID is just another health challenge adding to other serious problems in the country, including maternal deaths, malaria and tuberculosis.

Health professionals on PNG’s COVID-19 front line paint a disturbing picture of the challenges they are facing.

Dr. Glenn Liddell Molla, Professor of Medicine and a veteran gynecologist and obstetrician in PNG, describes an overflow of patients in a “tent ward” in the car park of Port Moresby General Hospital as medical facilities are flooded with COVID-19 victims. Struggles to cope with the influx. . He told me:

I am 50 years old in medical practice and many disease scenarios do not challenge or scare me; But watching young people die of severe COVID disease had a huge impact on me. They literally die from shortness of breath due to respiratory failure: they simply do not have the strength to take another breath.

Cecelja says the government is mindful of the huge health challenges facing PNG, but the level of vaccine hesitation is “very, very high”.

Sejelsa defends the government against suggestions it could have done more. He points out that since the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, Australia has allocated $532.2 million to countries in the Indo-Pacific to access and roll out vaccines.

It has contributed $130 million to the global World Health Organization-managed COVAX facility as part of its vaccine procurement program for less developed countries. Australia has pledged $100 million under the Quad Vaccine Partnership with the US, Japan and India to support vaccine distribution in Southeast Asia. Australia is also sharing 40 million vaccine doses with the region from its own AstraZeneca stockpile.

Papua New Guinea battling COVID, Australia must increase its 'vaccine diplomacy'
Fiji and PNG faced a similar dire problem with COVID, but went in opposite directions in terms of vaccinating the population: in Fiji, more than 80% have taken two doses.
Eileen Torres-Bennett/AP/You

Of that 40 million stockpile, 2.2 million have gone to Indonesia, 1.5 to Vietnam, 861,000 to Fiji, 577,850 to Timor-Leste, 213,000 to the Solomon Islands and 144,970 to PNG.

When asked why more vaccines didn’t go to PNG, given Australia and Australia’s proximity to their historical responsibilities, Cecelja replied:

The absorption capacity of PNG for vaccines is simply not there.

Looks like he has a point. PNG recently “re-gifted” 30,000 doses to Vietnam because it could not deploy them past their use date.

Diplomatic competition in the Pacific has been reflected in the difficult moments between Canberra and Beijing. At one point, China accused Australia of interfering with efforts to supply vaccines to the region.

In July, China’s nationalist Global Times slammed Canberra for “sabotaging” China’s aid programs with Pacific countries by using “political manipulation” to interfere with vaccine rollouts.

The newspaper said Australia was “planting” the advisory in PNG to obstruct the authorization of Chinese-supplied vaccines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said:

Some in Australia use the vaccine issue to engage in political manipulation and bullying, which, a disregard for the lives and health of the people of Papua New Guinea, goes against the basic human spirit, the overall state of global cooperation. seriously intervenes. Epidemic.

Cecelja dismissed China’s claims, saying it was “not quite so”.

What’s more, the vaccine diplomacy contest between Canberra and Beijing is evident in efforts to counter China’s efforts to increase Chinese influence among Pacific nations.

Read more: China’s thrust into PNG has been surprisingly slow and ineffective. Why has Beijing found it so difficult?

Finally, Australia’s COVID aid program should be set against annual aid allocations to PNG and the Pacific as part of its Pacific “step-up” policy.

In 2020-21, Australia allocated $491.1 million in aid to PNG, or more than 10% of its total $4 billion aid budget. This was slightly less than the Port Moresby achieved in 2019-20 due to the completion of work on an undersea cable between PNG and the Solomon Islands.

The allocation of PNG accounts for about half of the funding provided to Pacific island countries. On top of the annual aid budget, Canberra set aside $304.7 million over two years in what is called the COVID-19 Response Package for the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

These funds are being deployed, but it is in Australia’s best interest to do more to help PNG.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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