SYDNEY - The first phase of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has started in Papua New Guinea, as infection numbers continue to rise. Experts say Australia's nearest neighbor is also fighting a sea of misinformation and concerns over the safety of vaccines.
Experts say misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading even faster in Papua New Guinea than the disease. Conspiracy theories and other falsehoods have found fertile ground online. Adding to a sense of mistrust are deeply held beliefs in sorcery. Aid workers have reported that the family of a health worker in Papua New Guinea, who tested positive for the virus, was tortured by relatives fearful of unexplained illness.
Jonathan Pryke is the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based research organization. He says hoaxes spread on social media about the novel coronavirus add to the confusion.
"Facebook is where you get all of your information from, and Facebook is just seeding misinformation and misinformation is spreading faster than the virus in that country," Pryke said.
The World Health Organization reported 11,206 COVID-19 cases and 115 deaths Tuesday in Papua New Guinea.
Pryke believes the true scale of pandemic in the Pacific island nation is far worse because of a lack of testing and patients with symptoms refuse or fear retaliation from within their communities, preventing them from seeking treatment. Prior to the pandemic, sorcery-related violence against victims has been rampant in the country according to news reports.
"The official statistics do not look as serious as the true picture is and, you know, there is a lot of data points you can look at that display just how serious this is. We have had a sitting member of parliament die; we have had two judges die. It is bad. It is a health system that is so stretched to breaking point that it really cannot handle the shock. We are seeing this crisis play out in front of our very eyes," Pryke said.
The pandemic has been felt differently across the Pacific. Some countries have, so far, escaped unscathed. According to the World Health Organization, Tonga has not recorded any infections since the pandemic began. Samoa has had just a single confirmed case, and three cases have been recorded in Vanuatu. Fiji has recorded more than 100 coronavirus infections and two people have died, WHO reported.
A mass inoculation program is underway in French Polynesia. So far, there have been almost 19,000 cases detected and 141 deaths in the past 15 months. However, it is reopening its international borders only to vaccinated travelers from the United States, who have already tested negative for COVID.
The U.S. territory of Guam has reported its latest figures with 7,700 infections and 136 deaths due to the pandemic. Currently, Guam has a 14-day quarantine period in place for all passengers entering through air or sea.