Papua New Guinea nurses strike over lack of protection against COVID-19

Treatment room at Susa Mama health clinic, Port Moresby General Hospital, PNG. Photo taken by Ness Kerton for AusAID. Source: Flickr page of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) Nurses Association organized a sit-in protest on March 26, 2020 to protest the lack of measures and equaipment to protect them against COVID-19.

The PNG government imposed a two-week lockdown on March 23 to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the potentially fatal COVID-19 disease. At the time of writing, PNG has only one positive COVID-19, case but authorities have identified 3,000 “persons of interest”, of which 2,230 are being actively monitored. PNG has a population of almost nine million.

The PNG Nurses Association raised the concern on March 6 that most hospitals do not have isolation units for handling COVID-19 patients and bemoaned the inadequate public health measures aimed at controlling the spread of the disease.

After the announcement of the lockdown, the PNG Nurses Association reiterated its concern about the absence of proper training and mechanisms at community level to deal with the disease.

The group petitioned the government to provide nurses with personal protective equipment (PPE), risk and travel allowances, food rations, and insurance.

After the breakdown of negotiations, the group called a strike at Port Moresby General Hospital, National Capital District Health Authority, and Laloki Public Psychiatric Hospital outside the capital city of Port Moresby.

During a media briefing, the group explained their decision:

Staff safety is paramount and those in authority must put themselves into our shoes and understand exactly why we are doing this.

Gibson Siune, the group’s general secretary, highlighted the nurses’ demands:

Our human resource is at risk and as professionals, we are conducting a sit-in protest so that the health authority and government face us and negotiate in a professional manner.

We want more than lip-service from the authorities that our services are valued and personal protection is guaranteed before we go back to work.

The “PMJM” referred to in the tweet above is Prime Minister James Marape.

The Post-Courier newspaper published an editorial urging health authorities to implement the necessary reforms:

The threat by PNG Nurses Association to pull out its 4,000 nurses during this global pandemic is frightening and must be addressed immediately.

This is an emergency and the government has elevated the status from Health to that of a security issue. Use your authority as the principal Health advisor and demand that these funds [are used] and training be carried out immediately.

The Department of Labour and Industrial Relations declared the strike to be legal. Meanwhile, the PNG government assured nurses that protective measures will be implemented across the country.

The strike reflects the public's anxiety about the preparedness of the government to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from having to address the social and economic impact of the two-week lockdown, the country’s health care system is burdened with financial difficulties.

Journalist Scott Waide reflects on the irony of practicing “social distancing” in a country where there is high inequality:

Why didn’t we invest in the health system and build it up for our people? Maybe, just maybe, one day we might need to use it. That day has come.

Here is another piece of irony for you. The safest places in PNG right now are the villages where up to 70 percent of health facilities are closed because of lack of funding and lack of medicines.

Hundreds of villagers have been in ‘self-isolation’ for decades. They don’t have to maintain ‘social distancing.’

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