Australia's closest neighbour is not New Zealand, or Timor Leste, but Papua New Guinea. We have a common sea border, and the Torres Strait Islands are just a few kilometres from the Papua New Guinea mainland.
As the former colonial power we have a special relationship with Papua New Guinea, and 45 years after Independence from Australia we remain easily the largest aid donor to PNG.
It is not only in PNG's national interest, but also Australia's, for the recent upsurge in Covis-19 cases across Papua New Guinea to be treated very seriously.
Between 22 and 28 February there were 260 new cases reported – fully one third of the total number of cases reported in just one month since the pandemic began.
The number of cases is not declining and is today average between 40 and 50 a day – and even that is with only half the 22 provinces reporting testing on a daily basis. It can be see safely assumed the real case rate in much higher.
Australia provided generous cash assistance to PNG and other South Pacific nations last year to initially deal with the pandemic. There are serious questions being asked about how the Australian taxpayer funds were actually spent in PNG at the very least.
They certainly have not been spent on a robust testing regime. Since February last year just over 50,000 tests have been conducted in a population of between 8.5 and 9 million men, women and children!!
There may be a number of reasons why virus case numbers have escalated – increased testing is not among them.
In my view the key factor is the totally dysfunctional state of the PNG health system, at national and provincial levels. At independence "health" was a devolved or decentralised function, done without adequate personnel or financial resource to meet the health needs of a population principally living in rural, coastal and remote communities.
Since Independence in 1975, the number of rural health centres has declined by as much as 50 per cent. That is despite a rapidly growing population.
As a result, some key and troubling health indicators have been stagnant at best and gone backwards at worst. Infant mortality, the incidence of diseases such as malaria have increased. Even diseases that had once been conquered such as cholera have returned.
As with the rise in Covid-19 cases, the alarming rise in other serious and fatal illnesses can be largely attributed to the run down state of the public health system. Church health services have been maintained but they cannot carry the burden for the majority of the nation.
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