Papua New Guinea’s COVID-19 crisis

Until early 2021, Papua New Guinea had been largely spared of any major COVID-19 outbreak. But with confirmed COVID-19 cases tripling in March and increasing numbers of healthcare staff testing positive, the situation has become dire. 

At Rita Flynn hospital in Port Moresby, where MSF is responding, almost 40 per cent of people getting tested are testing positive for COVID-19. 


An MSF counsellor speaks to a COVID-19 patient who is isolating at home. In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the team carries out patient education and counselling to people who tested positive for COVID-19 but show no or light symptoms. © Leanne Jorari/MSF 

What is causing Papua New Guinea's COVID-19 crisis? 

With the health facilities managing COVID-19 close to capacity and almost too stretched to provide regular primary healthcare, the entire health system is close to collapse. The rapid rate of infection of healthcare workers is only making the crisis worse, as these staff have to isolate once they test positive and leave fewer healthcare staff available to treat patients. 

The lack of testing capacity in the country is also likely to significantly hamper efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Supplies are low across the country, and MSF currently only has enough testing cartridges to last for up to two weeks.

“The health facilities are struggling to cope with the outbreak,” says Ghulam Nabi, MSF’s Interim Head of Mission in Papua New Guinea. “There are almost no cartridges left, which are required to test PCR samples, and there aren’t enough healthcare workers to carry out the testing.”

Who is most at risk?

People with existing diseases and illness and frontline healthcare workers are most at risk of contracting COVID-19. Many communities in Papua New Guinea have little or no access to emergency healthcare, presenting huge logistical challenges and potentially deadly consequences if COVID spreads to PNG's most remote communities.

What is needed to end the crisis? 

The current COVID-19 outbreak highlights the urgent need for vaccine equity, as Papua New Guinea has been left behind due to the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally. While wealthy countries like Australia have pre-purchased millions of doses of vaccines, low-income countries like PNG are pushed to the back of the queue.

The Australian Government has recently sent 8,480 AstraZeneca vaccines to PNG, but this is not enough to cover the country’s 30,000 health workers and ancillary staff, plus other high-risk groups, and is too late for the many healthcare professionals who are already infected. Australia is now locally producing millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine which could be shared with Papua New Guinea immediately as it battles this spiralling outbreak.

“The outbreak in PNG is rapidly escalating, with hospitals and clinics overwhelmed and many health workers already infected,” says MSF Australia Executive Director Jennifer Tierney. “What’s needed is a bigger response, now, before the situation gets out of control.”

High-risk people like health workers need to be vaccinated first, no matter where they live, in line with the World Health Organization’s Equitable Allocation Framework. This will reduce the risk of vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variants developing and help end the pandemic sooner. Without access to vaccines and other essential medical tools, Papua New Guinea’s outbreak will only spiral even further out of control. 
“Papua New Guinea needed these vaccines yesterday,” says Tierney. “What will be the situation for other Pacific nations? Australia needs to act fast to ensure that all health workers and other high-risk people are vaccinated across the Pacific.”

Newly hired staff members attend a training in safe use of PPE is held in Port Moresby. MSF began managing a 43-bed ward in Rita Flynn makeshift hospital in Port Moresby treating moderately to severely ill COVID-19 patients from April 2021. © Leanne Jorar

Newly hired staff members attend a training in safe use of PPE is held in Port Moresby. MSF began managing a 43-bed ward in Rita Flynn makeshift hospital in Port Moresby treating moderately to severely ill COVID-19 patients from April 2021. © Leanne Jorari/MSF

MSF's response

MSF has worked in PNG for seven years running tuberculosis programs, and has supported COVID-19 diagnosis at the Rita Flynn testing centre in Port Moresby since October 2020. We are partnering with Rita Flynn hospital to manage a makeshift 43-bed COVID-19 treatment facility to treat moderately to severely ill COIVD-19 patients from early April.


Will you support
our emergency medical work?

Médecins Sans Frontières is providing support and medical care around the world to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re providing essential care through dedicated COVID-19 facilities, equipping frontline medical staff with PPE and training, and supporting health authorities through testing and community education.

With 50 years of experience fighting epidemics, we’re committed to protecting the most vulnerable and saving lives.

Can you help increase our capacity to respond to emergencies like COVID-19 by making a donation today?