Covid Spike in Pacific Nation Raises Fear of Regional Spread

Papua New Guinea reported at least 260 new Covid-19 cases in the seven days ending on Feb. 28, its largest weekly rise, raising concerns the pandemic is worsening in the Pacific Islands region’s most populous nation.

With fears growing the virus may spread eastwards to other Pacific nations, the outbreak could have geopolitical implications. An Australian Broadcasting Corp. report on Feb. 5 said China was assisting Papua New Guinea with a supply of vaccines, citing Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. The government in Port Moresby denied the claim, it said.

Meanwhile, Western nations including the U.S. and nearby Australia are ramping up efforts to get alternative immunizations quickly on the ground in the Pacific.

According to a World Health Organization report dated March 1 seen by Bloomberg, “there are currently surges in several provinces across PNG, with major outbreaks in the National Capital District,” which includes the capital Port Morseby and provinces bordering Indonesia. Infected patients include a large number of health-care workers, prisoners and people on mine sites, the report said.

A separate report from Papua New Guinea health authorities seen by Bloomberg shows the number of virus cases nearly doubled every week in February.

“The virus seems to be ripping through the country and it all seems to have got too hard, too quickly for Papua New Guinea’s government to control,” said Jonathan Pryke, who heads research on the Pacific region for the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

An emailed request and a call for comment to the Papua New Guinea government wasn’t immediately answered.

Government data shows the virus has spread to Bougainville, taking it from the west of the country to the east.

“That is such a porous border, with a lot of communities that live on either side of it,” Pryke said. “There’s a big concern that this is going to keep moving east” toward the Solomon Islands and other areas of the Pacific, he said.

The surge could prompt the government to consider getting China to supply it’s vaccine to the country.

Over the past decade, China’s growing influence in the 14-nation Pacific Islands -- whose cumulative population of just 13 million is sprawled over thousands of islands and atolls in a region stretching across 15% of the world’s surface -- has triggered alarm bells in the U.S. and Australia. Diplomats and intelligence officials fear Beijing’s ultimate goal may be to establish a naval base that would upend their military strategies.

The U.S., Australia and New Zealand are leading efforts to implement logistics to help build a vaccine program in the region. Financial Times reported Wednesday that the U.S. is working with Japan, India and Australia to develop a plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to countries in Asia as part of a broader strategy to counter China’s influence.

Australia, which is in the midst of worsening ties with Beijing that have spilled over into trade reprisals from its largest trading partner, has committed more than A$200 million ($156 million) to the Gavi alliance that will help immunize high-risk populations in developing countries, including most of the Pacific. It’s also donating another A$500 million over three years to Pacific nations to bolster the logistics and supply chains it implement the program.

However, there are questions about its ability to help get the vaccine delivered quickly, especially as it only began its own domestic roll out last month.

According to Pryke at Lowy, Papua New Guinea might lose its patience as the virus spreads and turn to China for its vaccine, prompting other Pacific nations to follow its lead.

“If Australia is not the one to be seen leading the way in assisting the roll out in vaccinations in a pandemic that’s been going for almost a year, that’s a bad look,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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