Papua New Guinea has recorded its first Covid-19-related death – the first Pacific island fatality outside US territories and the first in Melanesia – as it seeks to contain an outbreak in the main hospital in its capital, Port Moresby.
The 48-year-old woman – who had stage four breast cancer – died in Port Moresby general hospital on Sunday. She died with the novel coronavirus, doctors said, and her illness and death “may have been complicated by Covid-19”.
Before the woman’s infection and death, all five confirmed cases in PNG in the past week were among workers at the central public health laboratory, where Covid-19 tests are being conducted, at Port Moresby general hospital. A cluster in the hospital has raised questions about the country’s capacity to safely test and treat cases in an outbreak.
The laboratory has undergone a deep clean and disinfection, the government has said. PNG has reported 17 cases in total. A previous cluster of Covid cases was detected at the PNG’s military headquarters, Murray Barracks, also in Port Moresby.
“Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate, it can attack the strongest or, in this case, the most vulnerable,” Dr Paison Dakulala from the national control centre for Covid-19. “We must all change the way we live, things will never be how they were before.”
Dakulala said the exponential growth in cases internationally was cause for concern for PNG. “The pandemic is not over yet so we must not be complacent but continue to be vigilant by adhering to the health measures in place.”
But health minister Jelta Wong warned many in PNG were cavalier about the pandemic and were not practising social distancing, saying: “Covid-19 is real and it is moving around our communities because we are simply being too complacent. The danger is that our people will think Covid-19 exists at the Port Moresby general hospital and if we stay away from there we will be OK. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Wong said the last six cases recorded in PNG in the past week were in people “moving in and out of communities, attending church services, going to shopping centres, congregating at buai [betel nut] markets and using public transport. They could have been infected anywhere and God willing our contact tracing will discover that they haven’t infected others, but people aren’t listening”.
The death in PNG is the first in an independent Pacific nation, and only the eighth across the Pacific. Guam has recorded five deaths and the Northern Mariana Islands two: both are part of the USA.
Pacific rim nations Australia and New Zealand have recorded 122 and 22 deaths respectively.
The Pacific has – so far – successfully suppressed the number of Covid-19 infections, leveraging the region’s geographic isolation through the strict enforcement of border closures.
But there are significant fears if the virus were to gain a significant foothold in the region, it could devastate island communities, which have limited public health infrastructure, and populations with high rates of comorbidities, living in tight-knit communities where distancing is difficult, if not impossible.