Working together to achieve healthcare equity for all



Here in Australia, we’re lucky to be in the midst of a nationwide COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Although it’s too soon to say for certain, we’ve also got better at controlling new outbreaks, and our lockdowns are getting faster and more efficient.

Main image: Close up of doctor putting bandaid on someone's arm after vaccination (Getty)

But for people living in Papua New Guinea, one of our closest neighbours, the situation is very different. Since late February, case numbers have been increasing rapidly. In the past week alone, infection numbers have increased exponentially, bringing the total to more than 9300. At least 89 lives have been lost.

The stark differences between Australia and Papua New Guinea during this crisis are a reminder of how far we still have to go to make sure that all humans, no matter where they’re born, have access to decent healthcare. This crisis is also a reminder of how big the gap is between us and our closest neighbour — a country a mere hop, skip and jump from our shoreline, yet one that few Australians visit. Of the Australians that do visit Papua New Guinea, fewer still venture from tourist hotspots like the Kokoda Trail.

Despite its proximity, the average citizen in Papua New Guinea lives a radically different life to those of us here in Australia. According to the most recent government survey, it’s one of the least electrified countries in the world, where only 15 per cent of people have regular access to electricity. Out of all of the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea also has the lowest rates of access to clean drinking water — a mere 46 per cent of the population. Frequent natural disasters, poor transportation and limitations in healthcare and education further compound the existing inequalities. Worryingly, one-third of the population lives in households without a place to wash hands that has both soap and water.

It’s easy to see why providing a timely and effective response to COVID-19 might be difficult, but the challenges in the healthcare system in particular make responding effectively even harder. Many locals struggle to access basic health services because they live in remote areas, or because the health system is under-resourced. There’s also a worrying lack of health professionals, with approximately one doctor per 14,000 people, leaving healthcare staff with few resources to manage the overwhelming need.

Already fragile, the healthcare system in Papua New Guinea is now reaching breaking point. Most people prefer to get their COVID-19 tests in private clinics because of the delays and challenges in accessing testing through the public system, and tests in private clinics can cost up to AUD $300 — an impossible figure in a country where 85.7 per cent of the population is considered to be living in poverty. Even then, COVID-19 tests are not always available on time, and it can take weeks to get results.

Most health facilities in Papua New Guinea also struggle to get adequate medical supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), leaving the few health professionals at increasing risk of contracting the virus themselves. For weeks now there have been alarming reports about how poorly the healthcare system is coping. Patients are overflowing into the hospital carparks in Port Moresby, and half of the women who present to the hospital to deliver their babies are testing positive. On top of all this, there’s now pushback about the validity of COVID-19, with misinformation spreading through communities about the virus being a hoax.


'The reality is that this pandemic will not end until it ends for every nation.'


Nonetheless, it’s also important to remember that during these challenging times, our faith not only gives us hope in a better world, but it can also be an effective way to ensure that help reaches the people who need it most. This is particularly clear in Papua New Guinea, where the majority of citizens are churchgoers, and the various church networks reach over 70 per cent of the population through schools and healthcare centres. The Catholic Church in particular reaches approximately 50 per cent of the population, including those living in rural and remote areas.

Catholic organisations like Caritas Australia have been working in Papua New Guinea for years through longstanding partnerships with the church networks. One of the main ways that churches are able to reach the most marginalised is through community education, particularly in rural and remote areas where communities have reduced access to vital lifesaving information about the virus.

At this time of great need, Catholic Health Australia and its many members have stepped up to support one of Caritas Australia’s long-time partners, Catholic Church Health Services in Papua New Guinea, with a pledge of over AUD $250,000 to help tackle COVID-19. Catholic Church Health Services has 247 healthcare facilities across Papua New Guinea and reaches into remote and regional areas. The money pledged will be used to address the most crucial and immediate needs, particularly the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in areas that will not be covered by the Australian Government’s recent commitment to support Papua New Guinea. This is surely the result of the Good Samaritan values in action — practical, effective and compassionate.

I applaud the government’s commitment to supply vaccinations, but Australia must increase that commitment, through increased funding for global vaccinations, support to regional health systems and emergency support for countries at risk of famine. The #EndCOVIDForAll campaign calls for this increased commitment from the Australian government, and is supported by Caritas Australia and numerous other faith-based organisations around the country. The reality is that this pandemic will not end until it ends for every nation. This is the foundation of the campaign as it calls on the government to do more to support our neighbours, many of whom are struggling with the social, economic and health related impacts of COVID-19.

Indeed, it’s vital to make sure that our government steps up to provide support to our closest neighbours. It is only this way that we can we build a better world, one which is founded in a commitment to equality and justice for all. After all, this pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to reimagine our world as we rebuild our social and economic systems, to create a world where the most marginalised are included in our decision making. And this is best achieved by working towards justice together, through our shared compassion for the most vulnerable in their hour of need.



John WatkinsThe Honourable John Watkins AM is currently Chair of Catholic Health Australia, a Director of Caritas Australia, Director of Catholic Professional Standards Limited, Director of the Central Coast Local Health District Board and member of the Governing Council of NeuRA. In 2005 John was elected to the position of Deputy Premier of NSW, a role in which he served until 2008.

Main image: Close up of doctor putting bandaid on someone's arm after vaccination (Getty)

Topic tags: John Watkins, Papua New Guinea, PNG, Australia, COVID-19, vaccine, vaccine equity, healthcare equity



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Existing comments

Australia needs to supply: (1) temporary help to combat the virus; (2) encourage long term projects such as a facility to develop vaccines locally; and (3) encourage the PNG government to invest in its people by supporting other local development.
Peter Horan | 20 April 2021

Health care in remote regions like PNG Highlands and across the border in West Papua can be surprisingly adequate... who'd figure that the ugly, much maligned mining industry would bring high class services with expat doctors to Tabubil or Tembagapura? Many of PNGs regional hospitals and smaller services are located in proximity to industry, but WHO reports indicate closures in recent years. Once upon a time (1980's) Bougainville had great medical service but after the mine closure it hasn't received much funding. Key to a rapid response to vaccine distribution will be logistics; 80% of the population live in rural/regional areas and it'd be impossible to get Pfizer shots transported to many with it's cold storage requirements to FIFO villages. I hope the Australian focus on PNG gains some impetus but believe that the only way that'll happen short-term is if China steps in with Sinovac and maybe then we'll see Canberra throw a leg out of the bed.
ray | 21 April 2021

Sometimes I am inclined to complain about the less than rapid rollout of COVID vaccines here in Australia. That is a less than helpful attitude towards those countries struggling every day with the pandemic and our closest neighbour is one of those countries. I would hope Australia continues its interest in helping PNG improve services and thus keep a strong friendship in good health.
Pam | 21 April 2021

As Jesus showed, you cannot evangelise without concurrent good works. If Timor-Leste and the Melanesian and Polynesian nations are to stay out of China’s clutches, Australia, representing Western liberal democracy, will have to have a high profile for neighbourly benevolence in this neighbourhood.
roy chen yee | 21 April 2021

Thank you John for an article that raises many important points about health care at home and abroad. I think it would help if the UN member states would raise a fund to be administered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to assist poorer nations like PNG with unreliable health services to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, other pandemics and medical emergencies. A country like Australia should be able to provide full health cover (including dental) for all of its citizens which could be funded from increased taxes raised from the large corporations that currently pay little or no tax. Some years ago, my wife and I visited Cuba as part of a trip to Latin America. Cuba is not a very wealthy nation, but all its citizens have full health care and education free of charge. In addition, Cuba sends solidarity health teams to many countries with poor health services - especially in Latin America. It has been doing this in Timor-Leste for several years . Also it has been reserving 300 places per annum in its medical school for medical students from Timo-Leste to help te poorest nation in SE Asia to build up a reliable health service. In 2005, Cuba’s leaders looked ahead and saw a world increasingly beset by pandemics and natural disasters and this is what led to the formation of the solidarity medical teams to respond quickly to emergency requests from other nations. This initiative resulted in the mobilization of thousands of Cuban medical personnel with the skills and training to deal with a variety of global calamities They are called the Henry Reeve Brigades in honour of a US-born general who fought in the First Cuban War of Independence in the 19th century. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Cuba responded to emergency requests for trained medical personnel by sending 53 health teams to 39 countries on four continents including Lombardy in Italy. The health teams were able to assist countries with fragile health systems that were ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19. They had also sent teams to help African nations combat the Ebola psandemic Cuba’s response to COVID-19 eclipses all other front-line efforts from industrialized nations in the fight against COVID-19. This response is more remarkable given that the island nation has been under a decades-long embargo by the US and the U.S. State Department has made it known since the beginning of the pandemic that they might retaliate against any country receiving Cuban medical personnel! In 2020, the Council of Canadians' voted to endorse and promote Canada nominating for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to go to the Henry Reeve Medical Brigades of Cuba for their international work in the context of COVID-19. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more nations opted to carry out such important work in other nations to overcome
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 April 2021

I think they need an organization, such as WHO, to raise funds worldwide for poorer nations emergency health care, as well as ongoing training & supply, on a permanent basis. What has WHO done? I believe they have failed. People’s health shouldn’t be left to the generosity of a neighboring country. They need a more reliable & planned scheme. But for now, they do need urgent help & sadly, Australia doesn’t have enough vaccines to give them.
Cate | 25 April 2021


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