March 16, 2021

JORDAN FENNELL, HOST: Now the Labor Opposition here in Australia is pressing the Morrison Government to provide urgent and comprehensive assistance to PNG, and I’m joined now from Canberra by the Opposition spokesperson on International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy.

Good morning.


FENNELL: Very well thank you, thank you for joining me on the show this morning. I’m wondering, what is your assessment of the situation in Papua New Guinea at the moment? How concerned are you?

CONROY: I’m very, very concerned. We’ve seen the number of COVID cases rise from an average of six a day to 65 a day. What we are seeing is low testing rates combined with high infection rates of testing that’s been done. In some testing locations, we are seeing 30 per cent infection rates and that’s a recipe for thousands of COVID cases being unreported. The fact that the WHO has found that we’ve got stage three large scale community transmission in two provinces is very, very worrying.

FENNELL: And what would this urgent and comprehensive assistance to Papua New Guinea from the Australian Government involve?

CONROY: So Labor’s calling for three things. One, getting as much Personal Protective Equipment up there as the Papua New Guinean Government needs. Secondly, provision of rapid testing kits to ramp up the testing rates. And thirdly and most importantly, providing vaccines now so that every frontline health worker in PNG can be vaccinated now. The problem we’ve got is that the COVAX facility will only start delivering vaccines to PNG in late April. We need frontline health workers who are suffering very high infection rates and are obviously one of the key locus for spreading the infection to be vaccinated now, and that’s what we are calling the Federal Government to do.

FENNELL: In the meantime, what do you make of Prime Minister James Marape’s announcements about no lockdowns, but a nationwide isolation strategy? Do you think that is enough?

CONROY: Well that’s obviously a decision of the Papua New Guinean Government, and I should stress that whatever assistance Australia should provide, it should be decided by the Papua New Guinean Government. They should dictate what they need and we should provide that, but it’s clear that Australia can do more and that’s in our national interest. It’s not just about helping fellow human beings. We are seeing an explosion of COVID on our doorstep in a country that’s only three kilometres from the closest point of Australia so we need to take action. 

FENNELL: Now those calls for emergency doses of the COVID vaccine to get to Papua New Guinea, does Australia even have the capacity to do that bearing in mind that Australia’s own vaccine rollout is not going super smoothly at the moment?

CONROY: It’s a challenge, I don’t pretend it’s not a challenge, but we do have the level of vaccines we are talking about. We are talking about somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 doses of vaccine which is a reasonable amount, and I think there’s a very clear public health case that it is more beneficial to the health of Australians, let alone the health of Papua New Guineans, to get those doses up to PNG now. 

We’ve already seen for example six fly-in-fly-out miners swamped the Cairns Hospital. We are seeing potential for COVID to spread across the Solomon Islands and across to the broader region. It’s in Australia’s direct national interest to support PNG now, to vaccinate their frontline healthcare workers, to help get the COVID infection under control, otherwise we could see a widespread COVID disaster across our entire Pacific region.

FENNELL: Now Labor has previously warned that if Australia failed to provide adequate support to the Pacific during this pandemic, other countries would step in and China has by dispatching a medical team. Is that a concern for you?

CONROY: It’s a concern in all these things that wherever Australia leaves a vacuum in the Pacific region, it will be filled by other people and we’ve seen that with China during the COVID crisis. So that’s why I do welcome Minister Payne’s announcement that we would send an Australian medical team, an AUSMAT team to PNG, but much more needs to be done. Besides the health impacts, there’s the broader geopolitical competition that’s going on in the Pacific, and Australia must do everything we can to ensure that we are the partner of choice for countries like PNG.

FENNELL: Finally, Mr Conroy Labor has warned of a COVID-19 catastrophe in PNG and yet in that global context even now the numbers in Papua New Guinea are quite small. So, is the real problem here sort of an inadequate health system that needs to be supported on a long-term basis and do you think that’s where Australia has failed under successive governments?

CONROY: There has been a failure. Labor released a paper last year on COVID in the Pacific where we called for three things: one, immediate medical assistance, two, medium-term economic support, and third, long-term resilience building in the region. And this Government has cut $11.8 billion from the foreign aid budget, and that’s having a huge impact in the Pacific region. For example, cutting a third of health funding to Samoa during the Samoan measles epidemic is an example of this Government’s shortsighted approach. 

In PNG for example, three million people live in provinces without a single doctor. So there’s a massive challenge to help assist in improving PNG’s health system, and you’re absolutely right to point out that the long-term cuts to foreign aid that have occurred since 2013 have undermined Australia’s ability to support PNG to improve their health outcomes. And when you add on top of that the pressure of the COVID pandemic, it’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why urgent action is needed now and a long-term plan.

FENNELL: Pat Conroy, thank you so much for joining me on Pacific Beat this morning.

CONROY: Thank you Jordan, have a good morning.