Aust urged to address PNG virus crisis

Australia has been urged to more urgently address the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in Papua New Guinea.
Australia has been urged to more urgently address the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in Papua New Guinea.

There are fears of worsening violent attacks in Papua New Guinea against people accused of 'sorcery' over COVID-19 deaths following the recent torture of a mother and daughter.

The concerns come as senior Australian infectious diseases researcher Brendan Crabb warned that Australia needed to more urgently help PNG combat fearmongering over vaccines and encourage widespread testing for the virus.

Speaking on Tuesday in a Lowy Institute web discussion, Professor Crabb, the CEO of Melbourne's Burnet Institute, cautioned that PNG faced dramatic impacts from a worst-case scenario of steeply rising infections.

This has given rise to the alarming prospect of future mutations of the virus spreading to Australia from its neighbour.

There is a rising tide of misinformation in the nation of nine million people linking vaccines provided by Australia and other donors to 'Satan' as well as international mind-control and other conspiracy theories.

Local media reported earlier this month that police rescued a 45-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter, who were suffering broken bones, cuts and burns after being tortured over several days.

Relatives accused them of using sorcery to kill the woman's husband, a community health worker who died in hospital after contracting the coronavirus.

A senior local policeman has described their ordeal as "barbaric" and there are now worries there could be copycat attacks.

In the past, mostly older women in villages were tortured and murdered for allegedly practising witchcraft in relation to deaths caused by HIV-AIDS or other causes.

Prof Crabb said the link between retribution over alleged witchcraft and COVID-19 was "real and shocking".

He said many people were dissuaded from being tested by factors ranging from apprehension over community ostracism to having to undergo a period of quarantine.

An expatriate businessman in PNG said Facebook and other social media outlets reflected misinformation about vaccines being used as part of secret scientific experiments.

"A lot of people here think they will be turned into guinea pigs," he told AAP on Tuesday.

"Australia now has a huge problem right on its doorstep.

"Last month, two thirds of the new coronavirus cases in Queensland came from PNG."

Sue Ahearn, who spent three years working with the PNG Broadcasting Corporation, said it was a very serious situation for Australia.

"You can send all the vaccines you like, but if people are refusing to be injected with them, you are going to have new mutations of the virus coming over the border," she told AAP from Melbourne.

The official number of coronavirus infections in PNG rose to 10,197 on Wednesday, following the latest daily tally of 245.

But Prof Crabb said the real level of "positive cases" of coronavirus in PNG would be in the order of 100,000 to 200,000 and even that would be an underestimate, adding that more testing in the country was desperately needed.

He warned that the situation had deteriorated rapidly in the past month and it was time to raise the alarm.

"I certainly did not expect this to be happening at this pace and on this scale," Prof Crabb said.

He called on Australia to support PNG in responding to misinformation about vaccinations; including through the use of role models such as local leaders, sporting heroes and churches.

"At a higher level, I am concerned that we have not, both in Australia and at a PNG level, elevated this to the crisis level that I think it is at," Prof Crabb said.

Australia has provided medical teams to assist PNG in its fight against the coronavirus and has provided thousands of vaccine doses for frontline heath workers with promises of more to come.

But it's been reported many health workers are too afraid to be vaccinated.

Australian Associated Press