Virus exposes PNG's fragile border

CORONAVIRUS is exposing the weakness of Papua New Guinea's border security.
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Johnny Blades

Writing for Radio New Zealand International, Johnny Blades reports that earlier this month the government announced that additional troops and police were being deployed to the two provinces placed along the porous border with Indonesia, running over 700km long on land alone.
PNG Defence Force personnel dominate the two contingents, each around a hundred strong, sent to Western Province in the south and West Sepik in the north.
Police commissioner David Manning is the emergency controller in charge of Papua New Guinea's Covid-19 state of emergency. He said the purpose of deploying the security forces was to assist Health teams, rapid response teams, and church workers trying to prevent the virus gaining a foothold in the border regions.
But the deployment was not quick enough to prevent the emergence of at least three cases of Covid-19 in Western Province's town of Kiunga close to the Indonesian border last week. The biggest single group among PNG's total of eight confirmed cases to date, the three are among traditional border crossers who travel back and forth to Indonesia.
When the state of emergency was introduced, Manning announced a closure of the country's borders. Yet in the remote interior many traditional border-crossing villagers continued to go to the Indonesian side for trade and cultural reasons.
The problem with the cross-border flow is that neighbouring Indonesia has a surge of cases which may have yet to reach its peak - cases are steadily growing towards eight thousand, while 635 people have died. Statistics released by the country's Health Ministry on Wednesday show that of the 123 confirmed cases in West Papua, around half of them are in the two main cities close to the PNG border, Jayapura and Merauke.
Authorities in the PNG provinces along the border were worried about the threat of Covid-19 coming from Indonesia months ago, and in West Sepik's case the governor made sure the border was closed quickly. But the national government was cumbersome in its response, constrained by a lack of health infrastructure and security resources.
A Pacific lecturer from the Australia Pacific Security College at the Australian National University, Dr Henry Ivarature, said PNG's national government had grasped the enormity of the threat, and had now taken the appropriate action.
"So their problem is they don't really have the capacity, but they're trying to do everything within the limitations that they have to try and promote awareness around the border and get the defence and health personnel in and quickly start monitoring and testing people, which they've already started," Ivarature said.
Testing is still very low throughout PNG - although last week, urgent testing took place on over a hundred people who had been working at the National Operations Centre which oversees the country's pandemic response efforts. The centre went into lockdown after a person who had worked there tested positive for Covid-19.
Manning, along with Prime Minister James Marape and other government ministers have all been tested for the coronavirus, and returned negative results. The emergency controller this week said that PNG had the capacity to do 900 coronavirus tests a day. However, in the same instance he said so far only 559 people had been tested.
It is increasingly clear that PNG lacks the materials required to conduct widespread testing at a time when there is a shortage in the global supply.
Belatedly, the Western administration this week oversaw health workers collect 152 samples from people who had close contact with the three confirmed cases in the province, including 30 Defence Force soldiers, at Kiunga. The samples were sent to Brisbane.
Few districts in PNG are as vulnerable along their international borderlines as South Fly in Western Province, backing on to not just Indonesia, but also Australia whose mainland is a short boat ride across the Torres Strait.
The district, and particularly its capital Daru with its rapidly expanding population, is hampered by decaying public infrastructure and remains a focal point for diseases such as Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs and Leprosy. Covid-19 could devastate Daru, locals warn, and may already be there, since a lack of testing can barely prove otherwise.
However, the MP for South Fly, Sekie Agisa, said the deployment to his province of almost a hundred Defence Force troops, as well as 40 Police Mobile Squad members from Mt Hagen, would help stop movement of people in and out.
"We have deployed over a hundred along the international borders that we share with Australia and Indonesia."
Agisa said the Defence Force was using PNG's limited naval capacity to monitor the waters of PNG's borders with Indonesia and Australia.
According to him, the government's messages about social distancing and staying at home are starting to get through to local communities.
"We're taking control, but I think they've understood the message and they're confined, or they're isolated in their villages," he said.
But Ivarature said information about the emergency restrictions had not filtered through to many communities in the deep interior around PNG's border, including people who regularly crossed the Indonesian border to buy cheap food, fuel and other supplies before returning.
In the north, West Sepik people crossing over tend to head for Jayapura. In the south, people from Western Province often visit the city of Merauke. They cross over through the border post near the PNG village of Weam, manned by only a small contingent of Indonesian military. Because of its remoteness, and the absence of the PNG government there, it is difficult to get information into, or out of, this region.
"Without knowledge of those restrictions being applied, people are going about their business, crossing on to the other side and returning," Ivarature said.
"So, the government has to really be able to communicate clearly down to people at those borders on the steps that have been taken to try and prevent the spread of this virus across the border.
"But you just never know the population of people that can be going back and forward."
Papua New Guinea faces the same issue in its autonomous Bougainville region at its eastern border with Solomon Islands, where police sea patrols this week stepped up in the Solomons due to concerns that communities on both sides haven't been adhering to travel restrictions.
The threat that wide community transmission of the virus poses to PNG's health system cannot be under-estimated. Marape this month said there were only around 500 doctors in the country, as well as less than 4000 nurses, 3000 community health workers, and only around 5000 beds in hospitals or health centres for a population of over eight million.
To make matters worse, government efforts at using scarce public funds effectively to manage the coronavirus threat have already encountered problems with corruption, including in Western Province itself.
It is a neat coincidence that PNG's opposition leader is the MP of Vanimo-Green, a district in West Sepik province which is the main land gateway from PNG into Indonesia.
The outspoken Belden Namah claims the PNG government's response to the pandemic has been indecisive and unpredictable, and is in no mood to let its leaders off the hook about the border weakness.
"They're totally disorientated, confused and lost," Namah said, adding that number of troops and police officers deployed to the border area was not enough, and that some of them were already threatening to withdraw because they're not being paid.
According to him, when they should be manning the border, the police had been lurking in Vanimo town, using strong-arm tactics to enforce public restrictions, smashing up roadside markets and unnecessarily confiscating people's property.
"This is not a law and order issue. This is rather a public health issue. And as such, police and military who are deployed along the borders of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia should basically be manning the borders to ensure that there is no illegal trade, no illegal movement from people on both sides of the border," Namah said.
Recognising that ill-discipline and criminality are still a nagging problem for the constabulary, the emergency controller warned he'd come down hard on any officer who abused citizens during the state of emergency, as well as their immediate superiors.
"The Prime Minister's message to all members of the police force is that a kind voice in this harsh time can go a long way towards easing the discomfort and difficult circumstance many of our people are in," David Manning said.


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