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PNG: Mental health struggles through severe COVID-19 outbreak

21 Apr 2021

Papua New Guinea managed to avoid the worst of the global pandemic in 2020. Now, the country is enduring a severe COVID-19 outbreak that is threatening to overwhelm the health system.

Stigma and misinformation hamper efforts to fight off the coronavirus. Médecins Sans Frontières is providing psychological support to COVID-19 patients in PNG as the country continues to struggle with the outbreak. 

Nurse Fundzile Msibi demonstrates the safe donning and doffing of PPE during a training in Port Moresby for newly hired staff members. © Leanne Jorari/MSF

No vaccines, no tools

Papua New Guinea has seen COVID-19 cases skyrocket since the beginning of the year. Authorities have enforced measures to flatten the curve before it worsens, but it is proving difficult given the already fragile health system.

Medical experts have sounded off on the overwhelming stress this spike in cases is causing health facilities in the region. Over-worked medical staff, many testing positive and having to quarantine, and a lack of medical supplies have all but crippled public hospitals and clinics around the country. 

With many health care staff in the country currently in quarantine after testing positive, another key issue of the pandemic comes to light: vaccine inequality.

“The situation in Papua New Guinea is an example of the global inequity of access to vaccines and other medical tools," says MSF medical manager Farah Hossain. "When cases numbers began to soar, health workers here remained unvaccinated, while other countries are hoarding more vaccines than they need."

Since October 2020, MSF has assisted with one lab technician and cartridges to analyse samples of PCR tests for COVID-19 infections, however the spike in cases demanded extra manpower and medical supplies.

When cases numbers began to soar, health workers here remained unvaccinated, while other countries are hoarding more vaccines than they need.

Farah Hossain
MSF Medical Manager

Training essential staff

In early April, the MSF team in Papua New Guinea began supporting the improvised COVID-19 treatment facility in Port Moresby, managed by the National Capital District’s Provincial Health Authority (NCDPHA), which has a capacity of 43 beds for moderately to severely ill patients.
 
The MSF team has hired and trained Papua New Guinean medical practitioners in early April, specifically focusing on emergency situations and how to handle them swiftly. They undergo training on topics ranging from how to properly wear personal protective equipment (PPE), to oxygen therapy, to treating acute pneumonia.
 
Project Coordinator Shah Khalid says this will not only help them during COVID-19 but also in the future.
 
“Training our staff is essential to ensure their safety, and our patient’s safety. The procedures apply in all health care provision, while we are in a pandemic and also in any other time."
 
Newly hired staff members attend a training in the safe use of PPE in Port Moresby. In April 2021 MSF began managing a 43-bed ward in Rita Flynn makeshift hospital in Port Moresby, treating moderately to severely ill patients suffering from COVID-19. © Le

Supporting patient mental health

Patient education and counselling, essential services that support patient mental health and emotional wellbeing, have been largely ignored during the pandemic. Patients who test positive are isolated and stigmatized due to the lack of general knowledge about COVID-19. Stigma around the virus is still rife, with many refusing to test for the virus, even when showing symptoms
 
“It’s very important to understand that people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will face a lot of emotions," says MSF's patient education and counselling manager Fundzile Msibi.
 
"They are worried about their diagnosis, maybe anxious or uncertain about recovering because they will look at the number of people dying of the virus worldwide. They will also have to remain in isolation, away from family and friends.
 
"All of these challenges will affect them psychologically as well, so this support is to help them cope with their situation. Just being there for the patients to express their emotions and to support them when they are going through this period. We want to prevent emotional problems or disorders such as depression.” 
 
The staff plan to have regular counselling sessions with the patients during the different stages of their stay at the hospital and is also starting to look at how these issues may be addressed in the communities.