SPECIAL REPORT: By Gorethy Kenneth of the PNG Post-Courier in Goroka, Papua New Guinea
The flowers outside the building are in full bloom — green, red and yellow, sparkling with hope.
You are welcomed by the usual cool mist in Kol Ples Goroka.
But that welcoming coolness dissipates fast when you get close to ground zero.
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Inside the Goroka Provincial Hospital, in stark contrast, the gloom of death hangs in the air.
Sister Lynnette Babah has never seen anything like this before in her entire nursing career.
The past few weeks have been the most difficult in her life, testing her mettle, her physical willingness, her mental resolve.
Death is everywhere.
The Angel of Death
It seems like the Angel of Death, with a sickle, has swept into the Eastern Highlands and has a bed at the door of the hospital.
Death pervades the wards, the beds — even the cleaning agents cannot mask the stench of cadavers, and life here, even for the caretakers of the sick, is a misery, pockmarked by tears of grief.
It is easy to see why. Covid-19 and its delta strain are draining every ounce of life out of the victims.
The covid that every Papua New Guinean thought they are immune to is finally wreaking havoc with a rising death toll in Goroka, Mt Hagen and the capital Port Moresby.
Despite warnings, despite calls to vaccinate, many victims, both educated and illiterate, have fallen victim to the virus.
Last week, I was one of few journalists from Port Moresby that accompanied a team to visit Goroka.
I can tell you, it was nothing like normal. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.
A shocking reality
In all of my reporting career, this is the first major ground zero medical emergency I have walked into and I was shocked into reality by what I was witnessing.
In Papua New Guinea, it is common to be drawn to a moment of euphoria or sadness; you see a mother or a child crying in a flash of gladness or sadness, your tears will follow that emotional outpouring.
You know when you find a hardened nurse tear up, you instinctively know something is not going right.
The loss of lives, desperation of the situation, sleepless nights, lack of rest, lack of medicine, equipment, even the simplest things like a pillow, they all add up to melting the heart of a helper.
Our arrival with the Team Sana medical team sort of sparked the built-up emotion in Sister Lynette and she burst out in tears.
She was comforted by the doctors and as she gained strength, she said with tears in her eyes: “It’s heartbreaking to see my patients struggle and die every day.
“In one day, we have 9 to 15 patients pass away and in one day we also struggle to save a life, it is really heartbreaking for me as a nurse to see them die in pain every day.”
A distraught mother
Outside, a distraught mother, Mary Anoixa (pronounced Anoiya), and her 10-year-old daughter, Josephine, are covered in black charcoal and have been camping outside of the Goroka Hospital morgue for two weeks.
Their home is a long way away in Lufa district.
They are here hoping to see her elder son’s face for the last time before he is put into the coffin and taken away for burial.
Her 29-year-old nephew, Nicky Anoixa, passed away two weeks ago from a severe attack of the covid-19 at the Goroka Hospital.
She shed a tear as she remembered the last time, she saw her nephew and held him before he was taken to the critical covid-19 ward at the Goroka Hospital on September 30.
She has camped at the site for the last two weeks, hoping to catch a glimpse of son’s body but as covid-19 nurses and doctors have advised her, it will never be possible.
They told her she would only be able to see her son being taken out of the morgue and placed into his coffin before the ambulance takes him away for burial.
The closest the family will get to see will be his coffin driven by the ambulance to his burial site.
Managing the virus surge
Governor Peter Numu said his province was managing the covid-19 virus surge despite all the struggles they were facing financially and socially.
Numu said he was thankful that he had allocated an approved budget of K1.5 million (NZ$605,000) to help with the covid-19 operations in the province, hence he was appealing to all other leaders to lend a helping hand.
He said September 30 was a day in his political life that he would never forget — he witnessed 10 people die of the coronavirus and received a phone call that 10 more of his family, officers and supporters had also died.
Numu urged people to change their attitudes so that they could better address the surging pandemic virus.
“Covid-19 is real, I made a visit there to the hospital and I saw for myself people dying,” he said.
“Like one day, I will never forget that day, 10 people died, five at Goroka Hospital, two dead upon arrival, and three deaths from Kainantu – a total of 10 reported cases.
“But on that day, I also received a lot of phone calls that about five or six people, unreported, died and these are healthy people I am talking about, some are my coordinators, some my supporters, some even my family members… many people died leading to this day.
“We want a complete lockdown for a period of 14 days; I know the people will say it is against their constitutional right and that we are suppressing them, but these so-called constitutional rights are qualified rights, which must also be consistent with other laws, like in this case we have the Pandemic Act, so when you want to exercise your right, you must know that the Pandemic Act is there to control the spread of Covid-19.
“Any measures put in place are law under the Pandemic Act.”
A strange stench
It is 11am as we enter the Goroka Hospital and the strange stench of the dead can still penetrate through the medicated disposable masks we are wearing.
And as if this is not bad enough, no one wants to talk to us as everyone we come across is “running” (not walking) to and from every ward and every building in the hospital.
Further, the feeling of entering a contaminated hospital is something one would not even dream of or dare do, but how can we as journalists avoid that?
But what is worse is the sound of the ambulance sirens going in and out of the hospital – some coming in with patients in critical condition and others carrying dead bodies, while others carry coffins out for burial.
And this has been the norm for the last two weeks– every 30 minutes, 20 minutes and 10 minutes.
The front of the hospital is piled up with all kinds of medical supplies from donor partners, organisations, students and others.
At the back of the hospital, there is a gate that never closes – opens 24/7 because buses, cars, and even ambulances come in every interval to bring in patient
s, some dead-on-arrival, while others make it to see another day, while the rest die from shortage of oxygen or have arrived late and not in time to be saved.
The clock is ticking
Everywhere in all these wards, someone is struggling to breath; an oxygen cylinder has run dry, a patient is screaming, families are begging for doctors to save their loved ones and next door someone has just passed on — there is wailing all over
The minute chores, hourly chores and a day’s chores are all about covid-19, staff are all dressed in PPEs — some quite worn out; everyone is masked and many are in complete apparel and rushing to and from every corner of the covid wards, emergency and morgue like zombies … the clock is ticking and they have to race against time in order to save a life.
Around the morgue area, family members sit in anticipation, hoping to see their loved one’s face for the last time – even knowing very well they cannot open those body bags.
There is wailing and mourning, people covered in black soot, some turn up with the best blankets to cover their loved ones stored away in those two big, refrigerated containers.
And one thing is for certain, the heartbreak they are going through is nothing compared to that of a normal dead – for the last time they see their loved ones is when they bring them to the wards, when they pass on, relatives cannot even say goodbye — they do that after they have been put in a coffin and driven away in their ambulances — that has been the norm.
- A seven-member team of PNG’s National Emergency Medical Team (EMT) — Team SANA — was deployed to Goroka on a 14-day mission to support the Eastern Highlands Province covid-19 response.
Eastern Highlands — now a high-risk highlands province — is currently experiencing a surge in critical covid-19 cases, and Team Sana’s presence on the ground is proving vital in helping the province manage its situation, while providing temporary relief to staff on the ground.
The team has been working with the provincial health authority to build capacity on the clinical management of severe covid-19 patients, incorporating safety and infection prevention control measures, isolation, conducting hands-on training for severe patient management and vaccine advocacy among health workers and patients.
According to the John Hopkins University covid-19 dashboard, Papua New Guinea has 24,041 confirmed cases and 266 deaths, but experts say the real toll is far higher. Only 0.7 percent of the country’s nine million people are fully vaccinated.
Gorethy Kenneth is a senior PNG Post-Courier journalist who accompanied the Team Sana mission.