A health worker is preparing to test for Covid-19 coronavirus outside a makeshift clinic at a sports stadium in Port Moresby on April 1, 2021.

Gorethy Kenneth | AFP | Getty Images

Misinformation on social media is hindering Papua New Guinea’s vaccination efforts.

According to the PNG’s Covid-19 Response Controller, many people are reluctant to vaccinate as false information about the vaccines is spread even as coronavirus cases increase.

The country reported 1,730 cases and 12 deaths between March 29 and April 4, according to a joint report from the World Health Organization and the PNG’s national ministry of health.

Cases of infection rose again in February, and PNG has reported 7,839 cases so far, data from Johns Hopkins University showed. However, there is consensus that the actual number is much higher, which is masked by low testing capacity and other logistical difficulties.

“We have been lulled into a kind of complacency and false sense of security that we have overcome over this first wave that we feared,” David Manning, PNG’s Covid-19 National Pandemic Response Controller, told CNBC’s Will Koulouris .

Papua New Guinea is located north of Australia and is a heavily forested island country with fewer than 9 million people.

This, of course, is attributed to the hesitation of the vaccine, and you can attribute this to a lack of awareness.

David Manning

National Pandemic Response Controller, Papua New Guinea

The National Capital District, home of PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, has the most reported cases, followed by the western province, which is also where the rate of infection is increasing.

A combination of events – funerals, holidays, and school resumption – resulted in “continuous transmission of the virus,” William Pomat, director of the PNG Institute of Medical Research, told CNBC last week.

Vaccine hesitate

So-called “vaccine nationalism” has made it difficult for small developing countries like PNG to resort to gunfire to vaccinate their populations. Many of them rely on an international vaccination initiative called Covax, but vaccine supply for that program is facing delays from India, which is also struggling to stem an increase in home cases.

PNG ran a vaccination campaign last week using around 8,000 cans of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 shots donated from neighboring Australia. More cans are expected from China and India in the coming weeks.

The island nation has vaccinated fewer than 600 people so far, which, according to Manning, is way behind schedule.

“Of course, this is attributed to the hesitation of the vaccine, and it can be attributed to a lack of awareness – basically information about whether the vaccine has any side effects and the fake news spread on social media,” he said, adding that vaccine skeptics exert comparatively less pressure in urban areas.

Combating misinformation

Manning said Facebook reached out to PNG and asked how the social network could help dispel some of the misinformation that was spread, but he failed to explain the details of that conversation.

Facebook launched a public awareness campaign in PNG this week to help users identify and combat health misinformation. It runs for five weeks and contains graphics and videos in several languages.

“For this campaign, we will continue to focus our efforts on addressing misinformation related to Covid-19 and vaccines to ensure Papuan New Guineans are able to verify their visibility to official public health resources,” said Mia Garlick , Facebook’s director of public order in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This campaign complements a call we launched in Papua New Guinea last week
Provide tips to local users on how to prevent Covid-19, “Garlick added.

Stressed health infrastructure

The outbreak puts undue strain on PNG’s already poor health infrastructure.

International organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have warned of an impending collapse. According to experts, many frontline health workers who are already few are falling ill with Covid-19.

“If you get sick, no one will stand – not only for Covid, but also for other diseases and so on,” said Pomat of the Institute of Medical Research.

He stated that Covid tests are only done for those who “might show up” (at the) a health facility if they show symptoms and those who volunteer to go inside. “

Even then, hospitals and medical facilities will run out of components needed to perform these tests.

As PNG works with its development partners, including Australia, to ensure the supply of more test kits and components, it has also introduced stricter social restrictions. For example, stores have been asked to deny entry to those who do not wear masks, while travel between provinces is strictly regulated.

Manning said the pandemic response needs to be tailored to PNG’s coastal communities as well as the highland region, where even in the best of times it is difficult to provide health, police or government services.

“So we have now shifted our focus from a national response to a provincial response and are working closely together with the provincial health authorities that are currently inundated with surges, “he said.