Papua New Guinea to lift lockdown despite surge in COVID-19 cases

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape is pressing ahead with plans to lift lockdown measures in the Pacific nation this week, even as a recent sharp spike in coronavirus infections worries health officials.

Marape said a two-week lockdown in the capital of Port Moresby would be lifted from Wednesday, despite the country’s reported cases of COVID-19 doubling over the past week.

“Whilst the spread is there, we have to adapt to living with COVID-19 this year, instead of taking on drastic measures,” Marape told a news conference on Monday.

The outbreak is also hitting mining operations in the country, with one producer halting production after infections were detected among its workforce.

Mining generated $1.2 billion of PNG’s foreign exchange reserves from January to September last year, according to a World Bank report, which also cut the country’s growth outlook for the coming three years to 3%, down from 5.9% last year.

PNG had a total of 214 cases and three deaths as of Sunday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported, up from 104 cases and one death the previous week.

More worryingly, WHO said it was likely the real infection numbers were much higher, given low rates of testing throughout the country.

“Testing in all provinces remains critically low, therefore ongoing transmission in other parts of the country is a possibility as population mobility continues,” it said. “Testing needs to increase substantially to understand the extent of transmission.”

Like many of its Pacific neighbours, Papua New Guinea appeared to escape the early clutches of the pandemic. But new cases in the past week were reported in nine provinces, including remote areas of the country, WHO said, adding the bulk of those had been traced back to Port Moresby.

The outbreak has also spread to Bougainville, where a 22-year-old man tested positive after flying in from the PNG capital.

Port Moresby was placed in a two-week lockdown on July 28, with only essential businesses to operate, schools closed, and transport services stopped.

Temporary hospitals are being set up in sporting faciilities to cope with a rise in cases, National Capital District Governor Powes Parkop told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“We simply don’t have capacity, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We probably can create more space, but we don’t have enough medical officers.”


Concerns about the outbreak in the capital spreading more widely were underscored when Australia’s Newcrest Mining this week reported a COVID-19 case at its Lihir gold mine.

Newcrest said the worker, a 30-year-old male, had flown in from Port Moresby at the end of July. It did not halt production and said it is continuing to test all arrivals three times during a mandatory 14 day quarantine period.

The OK Tedi copper and gold mine is midway through a two-week suspension of production, which the miner said is likely to reduce government revenue by $40 million, after last week reporting seven workers had tested positive for COVID-19.

Exxon, whose PNG LNG project continues to operate normally, said it has already implemented enhanced cleaning procedures and modifying operating practices at all its sites around the world.

The coronavirus threat comes as Canada’s Barrick Gold mine remains offline amid a dispute with the PNG government.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; editing by Jane Wardell