‘The fear of this vaccine is real’: how Papua New Guinea’s Covid strategy went so wrong | Papua New Guinea

In mid-October Dr Clement Malau, a Harvard-educated public well being specialist and former secretary of the Papua New Guinea well being division, was alarmed to find he had gone viral. Solely he hadn’t.

Somebody had posted a 20-minute audio clip as a “speech from Dr Clement Malau relating to the vaccine”, the orator sliding between English and Tok Pisin – PNG Pidgin – to ship an eloquent, tub-thumping rant in opposition to Covid-19.

By the point Malau was alerted, the clip was super-spreading throughout Fb and WhatsApp teams, propelled by high-profile PNG figures. It’s nonetheless there, feeding into anti-Covid and anti-vaccine zealotry.

Entry to social media stays comparatively low in PNG – Pacific communications professional Dr Amanda Watson says there are solely round 600,000 smartphones in circulation in a inhabitants of almost 9 million, and most households aren’t on-line. However the on-line maelstrom is quickly broadcast into communities via the “coconut wireless”, or phrase of mouth. It fuels the mistrust underwriting the nation’s disastrously low vaccination fee, with lower than 4% of the grownup inhabitants absolutely vaccinated regardless of the supply of jabs in all provinces. In the meantime, a 3rd wave of the pandemic overwhelms hospitals and overflows morgues.

Covid awareness signage in Port Moresby, PNG
Covid consciousness signage in Port Moresby. Most households in PNG aren’t on-line. {Photograph}: Robert Weber/The Guardian

Malau tracked his impersonator, forwarding particulars to authorities. “They usually have finished nothing.”

A Covid health sign in Port Moresby
The nation’s messaging in its pandemic response has been sharply criticised. {Photograph}: Robert Weber/The Guardian

So he’s utilizing Fb to attempt to counteract the lies “all on my own”. He has acquired almost 5,000 followers, many determined for dependable data which they may, in flip, share with their wantoks (communities). With respect, empathy and plenty of “God Bless PNG!”, he goes toe-to-toe with the indignant and the fearful.

Malau understands the panorama and the stakes all too effectively. He was director of PNG’s Nationwide Aids Council within the Nineteen Nineties when many of his compatriots didn’t consider in HIV. His staff needed to devise clear, easy messaging that may resonate throughout a various nation of 800 languages and low literacy.

Whereas he encourages Covid-19 vaccination, and posed for cameras in Port Moresby when he got his first jab in May, Malau argues that jabs alone gained’t lower it in PNG. “If we don’t perceive our personal setting, we will probably be bulldozed down the monitor of simply vaccine alone.”

‘Not a rational difficulty’

Echoing different medical and social science specialists who know PNG, Malau sees crippling failures within the messaging and strategy of the nation’s pandemic response. Confusion and mistrust from the earliest days spiralled out of Australia’s shifts on AstraZeneca, which Papua New Guineans had been informed they have to take whilst youthful Australians had been informed it wasn’t protected. The persevering with failure to tailor pandemic campaigns to native situations risked “a catastrophe if we don’t handle it correctly”.

Some say it’s already disastrous. The obstetrician Prof Glen Mola has spent 50 years in PNG making an attempt to claw again staggeringly high maternal mortality rates, solely to see them blow out five-fold at Port Moresby common hospital because the virus has struck pregnant girls. The primary casualty was simply 18 years previous, the newest 27. “I’ve by no means needed to watch folks die as a result of they’re simply too exhausted to take the following breath.”

PNG’s official pandemic death toll is 546, however a scarcity of information and testing means the true casualties are unclear. At Port Moresby hospital there have been 40 or 50 Covid deaths a day in early November, dropping currently to round 10, however Mola wonders if individuals are not presenting “as a result of the notion is perhaps that when you go, you die”.

Whilst households mourn mounting casualties of their Fb posts, “with all of the vaccine phobia and individuals who have provoked this fear of vaccination … it’s getting worse”, Mola says. At residence within the evenings, he hears anti-vaccine proselytisers unfold the phrase throughout the encircling settlements on loudspeakers.

Professor Glen Mola with medical students
Prof Glen Mola, left, with medical college students.

“The fear of this vaccine is actual,” says Dr Fiona Hukula, a Port Moresby-based anthropologist with the Pacific Islands Discussion board Secretariat. In Madang, on the opposite aspect of the nation, the Divine Phrase College president, anthropologist and Catholic priest Dr Philip Gibbs has had numerous conversations with employees and college students making an attempt to steer them to get jabbed. “It’s an emotional difficulty, not a rational difficulty,” he says. “I bought the impression that college students listed here are extra afraid of the vaccine than they’re of catching the virus.”

Within the absence of clear, strategic data, harmful rumours ignite. As cases surged and the highlands town of Goroka suffered a spike in deaths in October, high-profile locals had been amongst those that lined up for his or her first jabs. However earlier than immunity might kick in, a number of bought Covid and died, Mola says. “And so then the deaths are blamed on the vaccine.”


Social media has supercharged fears, however Hukula argues that it has been made worse by the absence of good, domestically attuned data. “From the very starting of the pandemic … we didn’t have a transparent communications strategy.”

The significance of the acquainted

Again in April 2020, as PNG recorded its second confirmed case of coronavirus, Hukula, Gibbs and their Australian colleague Dr Miranda Forsyth co-wrote an appeal to national and international health authorities to make sure that they recognised native contexts – social and cultural in addition to sensible concerns like entry to cleaning soap and water and the feasibility of social distancing – in crafting pandemic messaging for the folks of PNG.

They warned: “The federal government and society at giant must act quick to forestall the unfold of fear that is a catalyst for violence and social unrest.”

In PNG, “training/messaging about causes of illness and loss of life based mostly on science alone should not enough to quell doubts concerning the root trigger of hurt and why it happens and impacts some folks and never others”. Additionally they insisted that every one data be translated not solely into extensively spoken Tok Pisin and Motu, however the place doable into native vernacular.

Dr Fiona Hukula
Dr Fiona Hukula: ‘The fear of this vaccine is actual.’ {Photograph}: Robert Weber/The Guardian
Aerial view of Port Moresby, PNG
Aerial view of Port Moresby, PNG. {Photograph}: Robert Weber/The Guardian

However 18 months on, apart from a multilingual pamphlet written by Mola, which he’s lobbying authorities to flow into, there’s little proof that has occurred.

“They’ve hardly put out any messages in Tok Pisin,” says Paul Barker, the director of the PNG thinktank the Institute of Nationwide Affairs. “They’ve bought a military of Australian high-powered consultants across the Covid centre [in Port Moresby], however they’re not realizing how to speak.”

Different key planks of the response are equally far brief of the mark. Centralised vaccine hubs the place folks wait many hours “should not sensible for folks – for aged, for mums with infants, the disabled”, Hukula says.

Fearful folks need the reassurance of acquainted well being employees from their native clinics. “They need to have gone out to the markets, to elucidate to folks clearly that this is a vaccine that’s going to assist.”

The Guardian sought remark from the division of well being however obtained no response.

Conspiracy theories and faith

The teachings of native responses to epidemics of HIV, tuberculosis and, in 2018, the colossal operation to extinguish a probably devastating polio outbreak – blamed on the breakdown of the health system and eroding childhood vaccination rates – are grounded in consciousness campaigns enlisting trusted figures and concentrating on group leaders, in sending well being employees and specialists deep into city and rural communities to ship packages.

Hukula and her colleagues additionally drew perception and warnings from their years investigating assaults in opposition to people accused of sorcery and witchcraft, which have risen in some elements of PNG. There’s a permanent perception that unhealthy magic, fairly than illness or misadventure, is guilty for an premature loss of life. This has change into entwined with Christian evangelical and Pentecostal beliefs. It was inevitable that coronavirus can be caught in that net.

“In a society the place now we have these very agency beliefs, that misfortune can occur as a result of of the supernatural, this simply feeds very well into this complete [religious] narrative,” Hukula says, referring to widespread conspiracies that the vaccine causes infertility and loss of life.

PNG cases

Fear and religion dominate PNG Fb discussions round Covid-19, in response to a recent report by ABC Worldwide Improvement, analysing greater than 100,000 posts and feedback logged on standard public information pages within the six months to 30 September.

Recently the dialog is preoccupied with false claims of long-term, debilitating side-effects from the jabs. “That fear is driving the vaccine hesitancy in a giant method,” says analysis chief Vipul Khosla.

In phrases of religion, a robust thread of posts displays what Barker hears from colleagues in his workplace who say they don’t want the vaccine as a result of “Jesus Christ is my saviour”. However he and different specialists warning that the affect of extremist social media posts can simply be exaggerated.

An analysis of Covid commentary on one popular, public Western Province page on Fb by two College of Melbourne anthropologists with a long time of expertise in PNG, Dr Monica Minnegal and Dr Peter Dwyer, discovered folks had been partaking with the fabric critically and selectively. “Most members didn’t take both non secular tropes or conspiracy theories as major sources of consolation or clarification.”

The discussion board had performed a constructive position within the well being emergency, they mentioned, arguing that higher, cheaper web entry for folks in distant areas would improve the unfold of essential data and engagement with well being packages.

Recently the researchers have change into involved by the tenor of responses to “no jab, no job” insurance policies and perceived mandates for vaccinations. Dwyer says: “They really feel their autonomy is being assaulted, and they’re much extra involved by that [than] they’re by vaccination.”

Prime minister James Marape receives a Covid jab in March
Prime minister James Marape, centre, receives a Covid jab in March at a vaccination centre on the nationwide soccer stadium in Port Moresby. {Photograph}: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

This is cultural, not a query of “foolish beliefs”, says Minnegal. “It’s too simple to say social media is spreading misinformation. This is a couple of social motion.”

The argument that social media has untapped helpful potential is echoed by Watson, who says even townspeople with web entry wrestle to search out credible data. In the meantime, they’re relied on to convey information to household and mates. “The overwhelming majority of folks dwell in rural villages the place they don’t obtain day by day newspapers. In lots of locations they don’t even have radio sign.”

One theme within the ABC evaluation is “lots of dialogue on the position church buildings ought to play in advocating for vaccine uptake”, says Dr Prashanth Pillay, who co-wrote the report. Individuals are questioning whether or not they need to be concerned within the Covid dialogue in any respect. “There’s the concept the church is the place for biblical teachings, and it shouldn’t veer from that.”

This performs out because the mainstream church buildings dial up their vaccine advocacy, with the Catholic cardinal Sir John Ribat declaring he put his belief in God and bought vaccinated. For some this was comforting, says Gibbs, however others “say that vaccines are a form of weak spot, as a result of it signifies that you don’t belief that God is going to guard you”.

Martyn Namarong, a political activist and author, has simply spent weeks on the bedside of his mom in Port Moresby common hospital, the place she’s being handled for Covid-19.

A Port Moresby worker with a badge showing his vaccination status
A Port Moresby employee reveals his vaccination standing on a badge. Covid jabs can be found in all PNG’s provinces however take-up has been low. {Photograph}: Robert Weber/The Guardian

The Christian apocalyptic views swirling round Covid are nothing new, Namarong says. Vaccine advocates have to tone down the noise fairly than shout louder. “In terms of folks’s non secular views, you can’t change them. It’s like telling PNG Christians that Buddhism is perhaps a good suggestion – it’s not going to occur.”

Covid campaigners “have to attempt to really interact extra … see us as human beings and mates versus opponents on a selected difficulty”. They usually should recognise the day by day struggles of life in PNG. “Most individuals dwell a really cyclical existence. The view of time is you simply get up within the morning, you fall asleep, and the following day you get up, all the things’s new once more. It’s about survival.”

Like Malau, Namarong urges extra regard for variables folks can management – good eating regimen, air high quality. “So that you’re not seen as simply ‘vaccine, vaccine’. You might be seen to deal with a public well being difficulty versus pushing out the vaccine agenda … Let’s co-opt some of the message from the individuals who have reservations.”

Namarong says his mom is recovering. However describing what he’s observing within the hospital, and within the capital, he says: “It’s scary. That’s the phrase I might use. We are able to see the system is making an attempt to regulate to manage, nevertheless it is simply on the edge … one spike and all the things collapses.”

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