Suggested Headline: ‘Washing Information on Phones’: Papua New Guinea’s Top COVID Fight
International concern is growing as COVID-19 continues to sweep through unvaccinated Papua New Guinea (PNG) where, according to Our World in Data website, only 1.7 percent of its population is fully vaccinated.
The vaccination rate remains extremely low, despite adequate vaccine supplies and assistance from the Australian Government and international organizations such as the Red Cross.
The slow rise is partly due to weak government messages and the spread of wrong information on social media via cellphone.
“There is a lot of misinformation around that is largely circulating from social media,” Jane Holden, Western Highlands Provincial Health Authority acting chief executive, told Al Jazeera.
While inaccurate social media messages about the COVID-19 vaccines plagued nations worldwide – including Australia where there were vaccine meetings Holden says the key issue in Papua New Guinea is that there is a lack of access to factual media messages.
“People have more access to social media than it would seem to be able to listen to the radio or read newspapers or watch TV,” she said. “So, their phones are very important, and people read a lot of wrong information on their phones.”
Holden says the misinformation is not necessarily just a belief in conspiracy theories, but a misunderstanding about how the vaccine works.
“People say ‘do not get the vaccine because you can still get COVID, so what’s the point’.”
The diverse nation – home to more than 700 language groups – presents numerous challenges for health administrators; not only the mountainous terrain and lack of reliable transportation routes, but also low levels of formal education and existing health challenges, including HIV, tuberculosis and low life expectancy.
Holden told Al Jazeera that although the region in which her team works has decent roads, we have some hard-to-reach places where our teams have to chop.
“Where we think we can drive on the road, we sometimes find that we can not get there, so we have to organize people to cross rivers and then get another vehicle from the other side and then just on to keep. “
“There are challenges to really get to towns or people living in towns, of course to get to us.”
In the small town of Kuntika, in the remote Western Highlands, community leader Eric Eribiang recently managed to oversee the vaccination of 72 people.
He agrees that the mixed messages on social media have contributed to vaccine reluctance.
“Now with social media, people have access to the internet,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So there are mixed feelings in people who put negative things about the vaccine. “Actually, people are not getting the right message because of the propaganda.”
Such “propaganda” includes Western social media messages that the vaccine is a conspiracy to make people sick, along with anti-vaccine messages that are propagated by some local church groups.
However, Eribiang says his status as the son of a chief and community leader was essential to communicating the importance of vaccinations.
“Because I am the chief’s son, I can influence and speak and lead in the province,” he said.
Eribiang has worked closely with the Western Highlands Health Service to administer the vaccinations in Kuntika, and the initiative has so far helped keep COVID-19 in the remote community of less than 1,000 people. About half of them are under the age of 18 and are not yet eligible for the prick under the country’s vaccine program.
He argues that the key to building trust around vaccines and coronavirus education is to have the right people with the job.
“Building awareness and educating the public is an important role, but at the same time you have to have the right people to do it,” he said.
“People who have influence in society and people who can look up to them. It is better than letting another person come from another place and trying to build awareness. ”
Former Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea Ian Kemish says the issue is part of a broader under-investment in health services across the country of nine million people.
Despite being rich in resources, Human Rights Watch notes that 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and 40 percent live in poverty faced with challenges such as domestic violence and tribal warfare. Traditional beliefs, including witchcraft, remain deeply rooted.
The human rights group noted in April 2020 – the beginning of the pandemic – that the country had only 500 doctors, less than 4,000 nurses and only about 5,000 beds in hospitals and health centers.
“There has long been under-investment by the PNG government in the health care system,” Kemish said. “PNG is a country that has seen some of the fastest population growth since it gained independence in 1975, so health services just did not keep up. So, the country starts all over again. ”
Kemish adds that Papua New Guinea is following a trend seen worldwide, in which vaccine uptake is low in countries where government involvement and confidence in government are low.
He says there is “a correlation between low vaccination rates on the one hand and countries where either confidence in the government or involvement in the government is quite low on the other hand.”
Yet this low involvement is exacerbated in Papua New Guinea, where he said the government “is not very present in people’s lives.”
“People live at a distance. “And yet Papua New Guinea has access to Facebook via smartphones,” he said.
Kemish is also the chairman of the Kokoda Track Foundation, a Papua New Guinea-based charity.
The group recently worked with the UN children’s agency UNICEF and Papua New Guinea’s health department to deliver vaccines to the small mountainous town of Kokoda.
He says that the challenges of mountainous terrain and remote villages to overcome vaccinations can be overcome, “but you have to have people who are willing to be injected.
“It’s not stabs that have a shortage, they’s actually weapons,” he said.
Medical assistance was also provided, with teams from the UK and Australia assisting Holden’s staff in Mount Hagen.
Holden, however, fears that people will only come forward for the sting after an increase in COVID-19 deaths. PNG has reported 415 deaths due to the disease, but is struggling with a renewed rise in the virus that began last month.
“There is no doubt that people dying in villages appear to be a driving force in reducing vaccine reluctance,” she said.
While the Papua New Guinea Ministry of Health has not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment, its website contains information on COVID-19, the pandemic and vaccines.
Holden and Eribiang say the information should be disseminated more widely, not only via social media, but also by people visiting remote areas.
“We need to make sure people know where to go to get the information they need,” Holden said.
“Each of us in the provinces must be very, very focused on giving people clear messages and being in the towns so that we can talk to people and talk to people about what fears they have and try to bring the facts. ”
Community leader Eribiang agrees that spreading the right message is the key to avoiding disaster.
“The awareness needs to go clear, so people need to be aware of the facts surrounding COVID and the vaccine,” he said.
“Once they get the true story, they will be able to decide for themselves whether or not to get the vaccine.”