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Interview: update on COVID in the remote communities of Papua New Guinea

Dirk Heinz interviewed Jack O'Shea who is currently working with Australian Doctors International on the ground in Western New Britain PNG, assisting with the rollout of health programs to remote communities. In this interview, Jack shares his observations on the COVID situation in these communities.

Question 1. You've lived and travelled extensively around the Pacific, where are some of the places you've called home?

Over the last decade I have been lucky enough to call a number of Pacific Island nations home, working on a wide range of international aid projects focussing on primary and public health care. These include Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and most recently Papua New Guinea.

Question 2. Prior to taking some well-earned R&R, please tell us a little bit about where you've been working and what you've doing?

Since January 2020 I have been working with Australian Doctors International (ADI) based out of Kimbe in West New Britain. ADI works closely with Provincial Health Authorities and Provincial Governments across PNG in supporting integrated outreach health patrols to the most remote areas in the country. ADI also specialises in in-service training around emergency obstetrics, family planning and gender-based violence. ADI has also significantly contributed to the procurement and handover of essential PPE to the provinces in which we work.

Question 3. Coverage about the health and financial effects of COVID from Port Moresby have got some media coverage of late, but what about out where you are working in the provincial areas of PNG, is the situation better or worse?

What we find working in the more remote provinces of PNG is that the flow on effect of supplies and personnel sometimes won’t make it past Port Moresby. Slowly the COVID-19 situation is worsening in WNB, with cases continually increasing. This also includes healthcare workers within hospital and clinic settings. It must also be said how incredible the PNG Health workers are and their ability to work in under-resourced environments amazes me. ADI will continue to advocate for more remote areas to have access to essential items such as PPE and vaccines (when available) to ensure the safety of vital health workers.

Question 4. What are some of the social, political and geographical challenges your program is facing in delivering health support to the community?

West New Britain has some of the most difficult geographical constraints for logistics with PNG. Being quite a large province, the seasons will completely differ from the southern coast to the northern coast. Sunny and calm on one side, windy and wet on the other. This greatly impacts the use of boats or aircraft for transport of health staff and or supplies. We also have issues with cold chain logistics in the remote areas of all provinces within which we work. ADI is lucky enough to hold MOU’s and Project Agreements with all provincial government partners and we work really closely with them on providing positive health outcomes for the wider community.

Question 5. What more could Australia and the rest of the Pacific do to help?

The initial response from the Australian Government for the release of over 8000 vaccines from the national stores was a great step in the right direction. The majority of these will be given to frontline health workers and others in high risk categories. My one area of concern is that the more remote communities and health workforce may be delayed due to logistics and cold chain issues. Having a medical team sent from Australia to help with the roll-out and to provide technical advice was also a sound decision. ADI looks forward to working with our provincial partners on the roll out of the vaccines into the more remote areas of PNG.

Question 6. Finally, you'll agree that the Pacific is a very special place full of things worth protecting. What do you love most about where you live and what you do?

The best thing about living in the Pacific Islands is an overwhelming sense of freedom whilst still being able to deliver high level programs that actually benefit the communities within which I live. Since joining ADI, I have enjoyed travelling to some of the most beautiful areas of West New Britain, meeting some incredible people, and genuinely enjoying the work that I do.


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