Health workers face death threats as COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy takes hold in PNG

By By Pacific affairs reporter Liam Fox and Marian Faa
Mimi Zilliacus (centre) from Australian Doctors International says her staff have received death threats after encouraging people to get vaccinated. (Supplied: ADI)

Papua New Guinea's New Ireland province is an idyllic Pacific paradise surrounded by coconut trees, turquoise waters and friendly locals

But for health workers visiting its rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the island has at times seemed a lot less welcoming.

"Some of our patrol teams have been given death threats," Mimi Zilliacus, CEO of Australian Doctors International (ADI), said.

ADI has been working in PNG for 20 years, partnering Australian volunteer doctors with local health workers who conduct patrols to rural and remote communities.

The organisation has been encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But Ms Zilliacus said extreme vaccine hesitancy was making things difficult.

New Ireland is an idyllic region of PNG, but vaccine hesitancy is causing some people to lash out. (Flickr: Jan Messersmith )

She said misinformation fuelled by social media and traditional beliefs was causing many people to mistakenly believe the vaccines were dangerous. 

"The conspiracy theories are really adapting as fast as the mutations of COVID itself," she said.

"That's in part driven a lot by a very low-level understanding of biology and science, and a background of having a culture around witchcraft and a belief in superstitions."

Nationally there have been at least 18,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in PNG, with case numbers peaking in March.

But authorities are concerned there is far greater community transmission than reported, particularly with the highly contagious Delta strain recently detected in the population.

Vaccination 'nowhere near high enough'

Less than 2 per cent of PNG's population is fully vaccinated. (Supplied: Dr Patrick Ofokonare)

According to official data, only 1.7 per cent of PNG's eligible population of 4.7 million people has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Vaccine hesitancy is so widespread in the country that 130,000 AstraZeneca doses donated by the COVAX facility expired in July and thousands of vials were destroyed without being used.

The Australian government has also donated tens of thousands of doses of locally made AstraZeneca to PNG as part of a $340 million COVID-19 assistance package.

"We've also been helping to fund and partner with churches, with sporting organisations, with NGOs, with other community leaders to be getting the message out about the need for vaccinations," Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said.

But with Australia and PNG separated by only a few kilometres of water at their closest points, the low vaccination rate is a cause for concern in Canberra.

"There is no doubt that in PNG, in many places that message isn't getting through because we know that the vaccination rates are just nowhere near high enough," Senator Seselja said.

Violent responses to 'no jab, no job' measures

Some health workers travelling to New Ireland have been confronted with vaccine hesitancy. (Supplied: ADI)

Despite the threats against ADI's workers, none of its staff has been injured by those who do not want to be vaccinated. 

But elsewhere in Lae, PNG's second-biggest city and its industrial heartland, vaccine hesitancy took a violent turn.

According to local reports, workers at the large agricultural business Mainland Holdings stoned their CEO's car and walked off the job last week in angry opposition to the company's mandatory vaccination policy. 

Mainland Holdings did not respond to the ABC's request for comment.

Another company in Lae, Prima Smallgoods, has made vaccinations compulsory for casual workers but optional for permanent employees.

Prima's CEO, Adrian Chow, said there was a significant level of resistance among his 300 workers.

"They think that once you get vaccinated there is electricity through your body … or that within a few months you might die," he said.

"It's very difficult to change their attitudes because it (COVID-19) is something new."

Last week, Prima brought in a nurse to talk to staff about the virus and vaccines, but Mr Chow said it did not go well.

Deputy pandemic controller Daoni Esorom said people were simply not taking the threat posed by COVID-19 seriously.

More than 190 people have died from COVID-19 in PNG according to official tallies, though experts believe the actual death toll could be much higher.

Need for massive education drive

PNG's vaccination rate is well behind its neighbour Indonesia, which has fully immunised more than 29 per cent of its target population. Authorities there are racing to control an outbreak of the Delta variant, with COVID-19 claiming more than 130,000 lives so far.

Dr Esorom said PNG's vaccination rate was far too low, and he said hesitancy, rather than a lack of access to the vaccine, was to blame. 

"We need to work very hard to convince people, to educate them to understand the benefits of vaccines," he said.

Ms Zilliacus believes this work would involve a massive, sustained, grassroots education campaign to get more people to roll up their sleeves.

"Because we don't know what the mutations are going to be and ultimately the only way we're going to stop this pandemic on a global level is if we get protection in all countries."

In many rural PNG villages, healthcare services like this physiotherapy class are provided by volunteer workers. (Supplied: ADI)

The failure to do so might put businesses that work between Australia and PNG at greater risk.

Tony Honey, the managing director of a large-scale timber company,  PNG Forest Products, has struggled to employ skilled experts from overseas during the pandemic.

With vaccination rates in Papua New Guinea so low, he said he was unsure how or when things would get back to normal.

"The rest of the world might be vaccinated, they may open their borders," Mr Honey said.

"[But] if PNG doesn't do something about [low vaccination rates], we'll look upon PNG as being an area that you should not probably travel to."

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