SYDNEY - Australia is beginning an urgent rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations in the Torres Strait in northern Queensland because of a sharp increase in infections in neighboring Papua New Guinea, a situation Health Minister Greg Hunt called a “clear and present danger” to both nations.
Papua New Guinea, a South Pacific nation of more than 7 million people, is Australia’s nearest neighbor.
It’s facing a public health crisis, and in Canberra, Australia Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is increasingly worried. Some of Australia’s most northerly islands are just a few kilometers from Papua New Guinea, raising concern the virus could spread easily and quickly across the border.
“We do not want the virus sneaking across what is obviously a very small area, and we do not want people in north Queensland, particularly Indigenous communities, facing the incursion of that disease,” he said.
Officially, Papua New Guinea has recorded more than 2,300 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. More than 25 people have died, according to research from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Australia’s Chief medical officer, professor Paul Kelly, believes the real situation is far worse.
“We are seeing a large number of health care workers on the front lines in Papua New Guinea now coming down with COVID-19,” he said. “These are all the signs that there is a major epidemic in the community. They do not have the resources for mass testing as we do here in Australia, and so any number you see coming out of Papua New Guinea in terms of cases and even deaths will be a major underestimate.”
Australia is sending 8,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to its northern neighbor, along with vital supplies for health workers. It is asking the European Union to provide another 1 million doses to help Papua New Guinea. Australian doctors are also starting an urgent vaccination program to protect islanders on the Australian side of the Torres Strait that separates the two nations.
The opposition Labor party in Canberra believes Australia has been too slow to react.
In Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister James Marape has said COVID-19 has “broken loose” and he warned that hospitals would soon be overwhelmed.
His country occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific Ocean and lies to the east of Indonesia and to the north of Australia. Agriculture provides a subsistence livelihood for an estimated 85% of the population.