Government and governance, Health | The Pacific

20 November 2020

Whilst the PNG government has taken steps to respond to COVID-19, many average citizens face challenges as a result of these measures, Lorelle Tekopiri Yakam writes. 

What are the general perceptions and mood of Papua New Guineans during the state of emergency (SOE) imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Papua New Guinea (PNG)? In order to find out, a short questionnaire was sent to 19 Papua New Guineans during the height of the lockdown in mid-2020. Through this survey, we can glean some insights into the impact of the pandemic on citizens and how they interpreted the government’s policy responses.

The survey was sent to friends and social media connections of the author from different economic and cultural backgrounds. Some are formally employed while others either own a small business or are students at tertiary institutions. While the majority described their place of residence as Port Moresby, some described living in other provinces; one participant indicated living in a rural area.

In an attempt to address the presence of the virus in PNG and prevent it from spreading, a curfew was declared by SOE controller and police commissioner David Manning on 28 July. The curfew covered the National Capital District (NCD), Central Province and Western Province, all of which had reported cases of infections.

People were instructed to stay indoors between 10pm and 5am unless they needed urgent medical attention or had to go out due to an emergency. The curfew was accompanied by several emergency orders, including the prohibition of public gatherings except for markets in specific areas; a prohibition on the sale, purchase, and consumption of alcohol; and a domestic travel ban.

In preparation for an inevitable economic recession due to the pandemic, the PNG government liaised with commercial banks, the Bank of PNG and foreign development partners to arrange a stimulus package worth K5.6 billion (US $1.57 billion). Unemployment has steadily risen as some companies and organisations lay off workers. Tourism in particular has been greatly affected, with 90.7 per cent of 2020 bookings to PNG cancelled, according to a PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (2020) report. The report highlights the severity of the impact of the pandemic on PNG’s tourism industry, including a K65.9 million loss and the laying off of 1209 employees since COVID-19 was first detected in PNG.

More on this: COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea

To support PNG’s COVID-19 response, the Australian government provided K1.7 million (US $476,850) to the PNG government whilst the Chinese government provided K970,000 (US $300,000). Additionally, the World Bank approved US $20 million (K70 million) to assist with combatting the virus in PNG.

While the allocation and spending of the stimulus package was being debated among citizens, the national parliament voted to extend the SOE a further two weeks. During an SOE, the police act under the order of the controller, not only carrying out their routine role of maintaining law and order, but also enforcing the curfew and other emergency orders and regulations under the National Pandemic Act 2020.

At the height of the lockdown, the issue of police brutality was highlighted, with reports of market vendors being harassed and robbed by uniformed police officers who claimed to be implementing the SOE regulations. Concerns were raised by the Governor for East Sepik Province Allan Bird during the parliament session on 2 June. He stated that there were mothers in his province who had been belted by police officers under the guise of implementing SOE orders. In response to earlier complaints, Acting Deputy Police Commissioner and SOE Operations Commander Donald Yamasombi had established a toll-free National Police Internal Affairs hotline to report misconduct and harassment by police officers.

There have also been concerns over the dramatic rise in prices of market/garden produce and store goods during the SOE. Survey respondents expressed financial anxiety, fears of becoming unemployed and challenges finding and/or using transportation because buses were restricted during the lockdown. Other concerns included an increase in petty crime, a fear of police officers and the disruption of daily business activities.

Participants also identified the fluctuating prices of essential commodities. For example, the price of garden foods and store goods (such as rice and canned food) increased while fuel prices decreased. Another challenge was transportation. Since most citizens depend on public motor vehicles (PMVs) to travel, they were unable to move around, either because the PMVs stopped operating or were not operating at full capacity.

In contrast with the negative experiences, some families saved money by buying fewer items, sharing costs and limiting their food consumption.

Although the Independent Consumer and Competition Commission sent out a notice warning shops not to increase the prices of goods, participants stated that some shops still did so. Also mentioned was the difference between the prices of goods in urban and rural areas. Participants living in Port Moresby observed that the prices of garden produce skyrocketed, while participants living in other provinces or rural areas stated that garden food was not as expensive because most people grow their own produce.

More on this: The impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods in Papua New Guinea

The participants also made a number of recommendations based on their experience with the COVID-19 SOE. First, they suggested that the government should invest in the latest medical equipment, new medical research centres and the education of medical professionals. The government should also upgrade information technology infrastructure in key cities, especially Port Moresby and Lae, as well as invest in making internet access more affordable for everyone. Low-cost and widely accessible internet would mean that people could continue working from home.

Participants also recommended that the government could engage local businesses to manufacture basic personal protective equipment such as facemasks and hand disinfectants. Moreover, the government could tap into the agriculture sector and help transport surplus garden foods to other centres in the country, minimising the challenge of limited access to food – an example can be seen in Morobe Province.

An important recommendation suggested that police officers and soldiers should be better trained in appropriate conduct and law enforcement during a pandemic or the implementation of a SOE. Additionally, in the NCD, instead of using privately owned buses, which are evidentially non-compliant with social distancing policies, the government could employ the buses used for the APEC summit in Port Moresby.

As the country moves toward living in the new normal, it faces challenges in every sector, just as any other developing island nation would. Millions of kina have been budgeted in response to COVID-19 in PNG. The government has taken measures to attempt to prevent an outbreak and control the spread of the virus in the country. Despite all this, the survey respondents indicated that there are still areas that need improvements.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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