Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance, International relations, Social policy, Education, Health, Food & water | The Pacific

12 June 2020

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has thus far managed to avoid a serious coronavirus outbreak, however, lockdown restrictions have disproportionally affected the poor and vulnerable, Elizabeth Kopel writes.

The swift adoption of a State of Emergency (SoE) in response to COVID-19 was a crucial measure to prevent the spread of the virus in PNG. However, restrictions imposed by the SoE have had a devastating impact on the majority of people whose livelihoods are strongly linked to informal economic activities.

Restrictions imposed on travel and closure of businesses during the SoE limited, and in some cases prevented, access to essential goods and services with major impacts on food supply chains. While some shops and markets were permitted to remain open, police have not adequately facilitated implementation, impacting the livelihoods of both rural and urban households. Rural produce has not reached urban markets, similarly urban supplies have not reached rural and outlying provinces. Limited supply drives prices up, making crucial supplies too expensive for ordinary citizens.

Restrictions have also led to job losses and a drastic fall in incomes. This has disproportionately affected a higher proportion of households that are already disadvantaged, both economically and socially. The poor cannot stock up on food and have no savings for emergencies so without work there is no money. This translates to thousands of informal enterprises and livelihoods lost.

Less disposable income makes it harder to afford basic needs for survival. Most people struggle to meet daily needs in ordinary times, so it is extremely hard for households to cope for weeks and or even months without a regular income. Many are going without food and this is a catalyst for creating additional social issues: domestic violence over household finances; increased theft; and petty crime driven by hunger and starvation. Poor diet and nutrition weaken the body’s natural defense system and leave the poor and disadvantaged susceptible to disease.

Fortunately, the country has been lucky to escape with under 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths up to now, which has led to the relaxation of some restrictions. Current social unrest in Peru and Brazil over loss of jobs, income, hunger, and starvation due to lockdowns highlight the potential risks ongoing restrictions pose for livelihoods.

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Urban settlements are home to low-income workers and the majority of those are dependent on the informal economy for livelihoods. Most residents live in poor and overcrowded housing conditions without adequate access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. These factors would make it easy for COVID-19 to spread in these communities.

Heavy-handed policing in the administration of the SoE without flexibility for the movement of essential goods, services, and for people to access basic services has led to ongoing public complaints. Destruction and confiscation of goods, as well as collection fees for access through checkpoints, were commonly reported issues, yet such actions are contrary to the purpose and function of policing.

In response to these issues, there are a number of strategies PNG can implement to reduce negative impacts of COVID-19 and safeguard livelihoods.

The first strategy should be to ensure that markets and shops are open for access to essential goods and services. Informal markets provide the lifeline for a majority of people; income for market vendors and access to locally grown food for consumers. It is crucial to ensure that fresh food from rural and peri-urban producers is collected and safely enters urban markets.

Similarly, it is vital for shops to remain open for people to access food and other essential supplies. It is even more important for goods to be transported to rural areas without the need for people to travel into towns. This requires giving the private sector easy access to loans for establishing businesses providing transportation and storage services or local commercial infrastructure in the outer districts. Services need to be available where people are instead of making them travel long distances.

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The second strategy should be to ensure sensible policing. Policing must be done with respect and understanding to facilitate easy movement of people, food, and other essential goods and services, of course with observation of social distancing and hygiene rules. A ruthless style of policing creates division, resentment, and conflict.

Third, the PNG government needs to facilitate the provision of alternative income streams for groups at high risk. For example, employment of betelnut vendors to clean and beautify suburbs or areas where they would normally be selling, so that they can earn an income as well as keeping the towns and cities clean. Incentives can also be created for betelnut growers to start planting other crops which would provide a steady flow of income.

Fourth, municipal authorities and market management should be responsible for markets. The supervision and implementation of hygiene and social distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in markets can be done by municipal authorities, market managers, and vendor representatives. SoE management needs to ensure that trained public health officers provide appropriate training of supervisors.

As a fifth strategy, the government should utilise existing community networks for awareness-raising in settlements. Awareness activities to reach out to urban settlement communities is vital to mass educate the bulk of the population on prevention of COVID-19 when conducting their economic activities as well as in the home. Awareness needs to be conducted through existing networks and organisations. This will create ownership, retain knowledge within respective communities, and improve sustainability.

The sixth and final strategy should be to enable churches to play a bigger role in addressing COVID- 19 to reach rural communities. Churches play an important role in the country as they operate in places where even state agencies are not actively present. Allocation of resources to churches for conducting COVID-19 awareness activities in rural areas would achieve much in terms of reaching the length and breadth of the country at a cheaper cost.

It is important that policymakers enable appropriate intervention strategies to reduce these challenges and ensure that livelihoods are safeguarded whilst keeping the virus at bay.

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