By Christine Rovoi, RNZ Pacific journalist
Papua New Guinea and Fiji are among several countries in the region going backwards in their fight against the covid-19 pandemic and this is concerning, a New Zealand epidemiologist has warned.
PNG has recorded more than 170 deaths and more than 17,000 cases of the virus. In Fiji, 17 people have died and more than 3,000 active cases are in isolation.
Professor Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, said the figures coming out of both countries are a concern.
“One of the added worries with PNG is it’s by far the largest population [9 million] and many people are living in informal settlements in crowded conditions with multi-generational families,” he said.
“They are very vulnerable to this infection so it’s very concerning. This is the same in Fiji.
“We are seeing a pattern across the Asia-Pacific region now where countries that have managed the pandemic extremely well and have succeeded in eliminating the virus. Fiji did extremely well and had no transmission for over a year.
“But now what we’re seeing is an outbreak of the more infectious Delta variant and we will see more infections of the virus unfortunately.”
Professor Baker said this had put a lot of strain on the health control measures in these countries, due to fatigue and complacency, after more than a year of battling the virus.
Fiji’s government has refused to impose a national lockdown with Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama saying this would cripple the economy and impact on Fijian jobs.
Fiji positivity rate at 7.4 percent
The country’s covid-19 positivity rate is now at 7.4 percent while the World Health Organisation (WHO) threshold is at five percent.
“That’s a grim situation and is very concerning,” Professor Baker said. “They are on that exponential part of the curve and that means essentially uncontrolled transmission of this virus and we know all the consequences that go with that.
“That also means with more positive cases will come deaths. Typically there’s a mortality risk depending on the ages of the population of half a percent to one percent.”
In PNG, where testing remains limited, the government has been reluctant to force wider communities into lockdowns and so instead has urged the public to adhere to the preventative measures of the “niupela pasin” or new normal.
With vaccine hesitancy still rife in PNG, health authorities there appear to be banking on the natural protection of a youthful population to mitigate some of the impacts of covid-19.
“But one of the real worries is that when you exceed the capacity of the health system to manage these ill people, they start dying from quite preventable causes. Some people are seriously ill and it will be hard to look after them even with the best intensive care.”
He said a change to policy settings is needed so people are more prepared for any outbreak.
Concern for Asia-Pacific region
“I’m concerned for the whole Asia-Pacific region because they are all going backwards at the moment and having trouble containing this variant [Delta]. Just look at the terrible situation in Fiji.
“This is a real lesson for us in New Zealand that everything we are doing now we are going to have to do better if we are going to stay ahead of this more infectious variant.”
Professor Baker’s number one piece of advice is to stay home if you have cold or flu symptoms and get tested. After that, wearing masks indoors at level two and compulsory scanning are critical.
There have been calls to ramp up covid-19 vaccinations on both sides of the Tasman.
An alert level 2 was raised in New Zealand last week after an Australian tourist who had visited tourist attractions, restaurants and bars in Wellington between June 18 and 21 tested positive for the Delta variant of the virus on his return home.
Wellington moves back down to alert level 1 from midnight Tuesday, and cabinet has agreed in principle to resume travel with some Australian states from Sunday: Victoria, South Australia, ACT and Tasmania.
The travel pause with NSW, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland is set to continue beyond Sunday. Cabinet will review the settings for those states on Monday, July 5, and announce a decision on Tuesday, July 6.