Bougainvilleans go to polls today in spite of first covid-19 case

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Bougainville's Covid-19 Emergency Controller Francis Tokura ... new orders for the autonomous region's elections. Image: The Bougainvillean

By The Bougainvillean

Bougainville is heading to the polls today amid its first case of the covid-19 in the
fourth general election of Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region since 2001.

While this election is critically important in the region’s push for independence from mainland PNG, it comes at a time when there is much distress brought on by the deadly global coronavirus.

Bougainville reported its first covid case from a 22-year old male student who had traveled from Port Moresby on July 29.

READ MORE: Contact tracing begins for first Bougainville covid case

Test results returned last Friday – more than a week later – from swabs taken in Buka found the young man positive, sending health and covid-19 response teams to look for him in Arawa in Central Bougainville to isolate and quarantine him.

Although he has been identified, relatives of the young man had initially resisted health teams making contact with him in Arawa Town.

Bougainville’s Health Secretary Clement Totavun told The Bougainvillean that the issue was resolved on Monday, and the health team was allowed to talk to the patient and collected further swab from him.

“We’ve also started the process of isolating him at his family home, while we are continuing contact tracing with all the other 54 passengers he had travelled with on the flight into Buka and others he may have come in contact with.”

Port Moresby case
Totavun said the case was a Port Moresby case since the young man was only given a medical clearance certificate to travel and was never tested until he reached Buka.

“We have a Standard Operating Procedure at our airport that any passengers travelling in should be tested and that is where we picked up the case,” he said.

“Our health teams are moving around in Central Bougainville to make contact tracing and collect more samples that will be sent away for testing, either at the Port Moresby or Goroka Institute of Medical Research, or overseas in Singapore or Melbourne in Australia.

“We want to encourage people to come in for testing and we also want to increase our contact tracing and testing to find out if we have a community or local transmission in the region.”

The increased contact tracing and testing will ensure any further victims are attended to early.

Bougainville already has two GeneXpert machines, one in Buka and another in Arawa, that can run tests for the covid-19, but Secretary Totavun said they were waiting for trainers from Port Moresby this week, who would train local health technicians on how to use the machines before they could be deployed in covid-19 testing.

“We want to strengthen the testing operation in Buka first, because that is where we already have an equipped test site or laboratory in place, and there’ll be trained technicians soon after we get help from trainers from Port Moresby, along with cartridges for the GeneXpert machine. After Buka we can then expand the use of the GeneXpert testing across the region.

Face masks encouraged
“We are also encouraging the use of face masks in public crowded places because that is a tool that can protect us against transmission of the covid-19.

“There are not enough supplies of the personal protective equipment (face masks) in Bougainville.

“We were given a small number from the Department of Health in Port Moresby so we’re limiting that to only frontline health and security workers dealing with the covid-19. When we get more supplies we will share it with other key government agencies involved in the covid operation.

“But the public are encouraged to sew their own if they can, or buy from those that can sew and wear them whenever they are out in public crowded places.”

Totavun said people in Bougainville should remain calm because authorities were on top of the situation and were stepping up their efforts in contact tracing and increasing tests to determine the status of the region if there is community transmission.

“There should not be panic. People must remain calm because our first case is asymptomatic, meaning the patient has not shown any signs of the covid-19.

“People should also refrain from spreading rumours and be sceptical because covid-19 is real.

Awareness for people’s hygiene
“Our awareness is and still remains that people must always wash their hands, do not touch their face with their hands, cough into your elbows, keep your distance from others and stay at home if you have nothing to do in public.”

Controller of the Bougainville Covid-19 State of Emergency Francis Tokura, who is also Deputy Commissioner and Chief of the Bougainville Police Service, has issued two separate orders on Monday, in response to the first case of the virus and the election which gets underway today.

Emergency Order #7 relates to Standard Operating Procedures to be employed during polling.

Supplementary Order #10 refers to restrictions on people movement within the region.

Emergency Order #7 includes the following provisions:

  • Office of Bougainville Electoral Commission (OBEC) officials, security personnel, candidates and scrutineers to have personal protective equipment (PPEs) like face mask, clinical hand gloves, hand sanitisers and alcohol swipes in all polling locations;
  • OBEC officials and security personnel to ensure there is hand washing before entering and leaving polling booths, use of hand sanitisers before entering and leaving polling booths, compulsory wearing of face masks by all polling officials in all polling areas, social distancing of 1.5-2 meters is observed by polling officials, security personnel and everyone taking part in the election, use of alcohol wipes by polling officials and voters in voting compartments;
  • Polling to be conducted in locations where there is adequate space to implement social distancing requirements;
  • Not more than three voters allowed into the polling booth at any one time;
  • Covid-19 awareness posters to be displayed alongside official polling posters at all polling locations;
  • If a sick person is reported at a polling location, the Assistant Presiding Officer or a member of the polling security team should notify the respective District Covid-19 Response Teams; and
  • Polling to start at 8am and close at 6pm daily from Monday to Friday only.

Bougainville’s extended State of Emergency will lapse on August 14.

Extension sought
The Covid-19 Task Force and Secretariat wants a further extension that will last until the end of elections on September 1.

But that has to go before Parliament for approval.

The House of Representatives at Kubu has risen and the Bougainville Executive Council has been revoked and there’s only a 6-Minister Caretaker Government currently in place until a new government is returned.

Bougainville’s fourth government is expected to be in place on September 15 when the election writs are returned to the Speaker of Parliament.

Meanwhile, if the second extension of the SoE period lapses on August 14, Health Secretary Clement Totavun explained that Bougainville would fall back under the cover of the National Pandemic Act 2020, passed by the PNG National Parliament earlier.

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