A catastrophe looms with PNG’s COVID crisis. Australia needs to respond urgently



from www.shutterstock.com

Brendan Crabb, Burnet Institute and Leanne Robinson, Burnet Institute

The COVID epidemic in Papua New Guinea has significantly accelerated, judging by the available reports of case numbers.

Since its first case was diagnosed 12 months ago, PNG has avoided a large number of reported cases and corresponding deaths. That situation has changed dramatically over the past fortnight. A crisis is now unfolding with alarming speed and the response must quickly match it.

Australia can be proud of its preparations to support PNG and the region in responding to COVID-19, especially its preparations to support vaccination in the region. These include contributing A$80m to COVAX, $523m to the Regional Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative, and $100m towards a new one billion dose COVID-19 vaccine initiative together with the United States, India and Japan (the “Quad” group of nations).

As good as they are, these plans are unlikely to be fast enough to stop this current surge before enormous damage is done. There’s simply no time to waste in responding.

Why the urgency?

Reported COVID-19 testing rates remain critically low, with just 55,000 taken from an estimated population of nine million people. This means we don’t yet have a precise picture of the scale of the epidemic.

The reported numbers are highly concerning. In the first week of March, 17% of all people who were tested throughout the country were positive to COVID-19, with over 350 newly confirmed cases. This is the highest number of cases in a single week in PNG since the start of the pandemic. Over half of PNG’s 22 provinces reported new COVID-19 cases in that week.




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There are other indicators of a potential large scale outbreak, such as reports of increased cases among health-care workers. What’s more, the total number of documented COVID-19 deaths in PNG has nearly doubled in the past fortnight alone.

Low testing rates, combined with reports of high daily case numbers, means there are likely many thousands of current cases in Port Moresby and widespread seeding and spreading of infections throughout the country.

PNG’s hospitals and front-line health-care workers remain particularly vulnerable. With limited public health controls in place and an effective vaccination program yet to be initiated, and with last week’s huge commemoration ceremonies for Grand Chief and former Prime Minister Michael Somare, there’s every chance the current outbreak will continue to grow exponentially for some time yet.

COVID-19 posters in PNG
These posters in PNG’s East New Britain Province help spread COVID-19 public health advice.
Parrotfish Journey / Shutterstock.com

The people of PNG now face dual health emergencies: death and disease from COVID-19 itself, and a likely increase in existing major diseases barely held in check by the nation’s already stretched health system. These indirect effects, such as potential rises in malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, cervical cancer, vaccine-preventable diseases and poor maternal and newborn health, are likely to be even worse than the direct impact of COVID-19.

Australia and PNG’s vital partnership

This health crisis should be reason enough for Australia to respond urgently in support of PNG. But there’s another reason too. High levels of circulating SARS-CoV-2 in the Asia-Pacific region are a recipe for generating mutant coronavirus variants that might spread more readily, evade immunity more easily, and/or cause more serious disease. A regionally coordinated effort to combat COVID-19 will help ensure protection for everyone, including going a long way to help preserve Australia’s own vaccine program.

PNG already has a coordinated national and provincial COVID-19 response and a vaccine technical working group that has begun planning for deployment of the first allocation of vaccines to front-line health-care workers.

Meanwhile, Australia is also playing a crucial role in supporting this effort, contributing generously to the COVAX vaccine access facility and to a A$500 million fund to support COVID vaccination in PNG and the wider Pacific.

However, these plans were developed on the basis there was substantially more time for planning, deployment and phased rollout than the current case numbers would suggest.

What action is needed?

Two considerations are now paramount. First, the response needs to be requested by — and, more importantly, led by — PNG itself. Second, the response needs to reflect the urgency and scale of the unfolding emergency.

This “emergency package” could conceivably involve:

  1. immediate provision of masks in the community, appropriate PPE for health-care workers and increased support for widespread testing

  2. a campaign to counter COVID-19 misinformation, which is rampant, and

  3. a significant ramp-up of vaccination across PNG, with an ambitious target — perhaps a million doses before the end of the year, aimed at the most at-risk groups.

Arguably the most important element of this would be immediate vaccination for health-care workers in the most heavily impacted areas of the country. Ideally, all of PNG’s crucial health-sector workforce should be vaccinated within the next fortnight. Australia could provide around 20,000 vaccine doses for health-care workers without putting a significant dent in its own vaccine supplies, potentially making a profoundly important intervention in the course of the epidemic in PNG.




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This is the moment for dialogue to occur between the two nations, so PNG can ensure Australia’s help with such an immediate and ambitious response.

PNG is Australia’s closest geographical neighbour, and our countries have a deep shared history of mutual support. An out-of-control COVID-19 epidemic in PNG would be a humanitarian and economic disaster for the nation itself, and a grave threat to the health of the region, particularly with shared borders to Solomon Islands in the east and Indonesia to the west.

Given this pandemic expands at an exponential rate, and with new variants of concern arising regularly in regions of high transmission, it’s the speed of a strong response that matters the most. A rapid public health intervention, to be supported and facilitated at the highest levels of government, would go a long way to mitigating what may well become a public health catastrophe.




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The Conversation


Brendan Crabb, Director and CEO, Burnet Institute and Leanne Robinson, Professor, Program Director of Health Security and Head of Vector-borne Diseases & Tropical Public Health, Burnet Institute; Laboratory Head, Walter & Eliza Hall Institute; Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, PNG Institute of Medical Research, Burnet Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Buddhist Extremists in Bangladesh Beat, Take Christians Captive


Pastor, two others held in pagoda in attempt to force them back to Buddhism.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, April 23 (CDN) — Buddhist members of an armed rebel group and their sympathizers are holding three tribal Christians captive in a pagoda in southeastern Bangladesh after severely beating them in an attempt to force them to return to Buddhism, Christian sources said.

Held captive since April 16 are Pastor Shushil Jibon Talukder, 55; Bimol Kanti Chakma, 50; and Laksmi Bilas Chakma, 40, of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church in Lemuchari village, in Mohalchari sub-district of the mountainous Khagrachari district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Dhaka. They are to be kept in the pagoda for 15 to 20 days as punishment for having left the Buddhist religion, the sources said.

Local Buddhists are considered powerful as they have ties with the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed group in the hill districts.

After taking the Christians captive on April 16, the sources said, the next day the armed Buddhist extremists forced other Christians of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church to demolish their church building by their own hands. The extremists first seized all blankets, Bibles and song books from the church building.

The sources said two UPDF members went to Pastor Talukder’s house at 7 a.m. on April 16, telling him to go to a Buddhist community leader’s house in a nearby village. The Buddhist leader also ordered all members of the Baptist church to come to his house, and about 15 Christians did so.

After a brief dispute, the Buddhists chose the pastor and the two other Christians and began beating them, seriously injuring the pastor. They then took them to a nearby pagoda for Buddhist baptism, shaving their heads and dressing them in saffron robes as part of a conversion ritual.

The sources said Pastor Talukder was bludgeoned nearly to death.

“The pastor was beaten so seriously that he could not walk to the nearby pagoda,” said one source. “Buddhist people took him on a wooden stretcher, which is used for carrying a dead body for burial or cremation.” 

Pastor Talukder was treated in the pagoda with intravenous, hypodermic injections that saved his life, the source said.

The Buddhist extremists were said to be forcing other Christians to undergo Buddhist baptism in the pagoda and to embrace Buddhism.

A source in Khagrachari district told Compass that local UPDF Buddhists had been mounting pressure on the Christians since their church began in the area in early 2007.

“They gave vent to their anger on Christians in a violent outburst by beating the pastor and two others after failing several attempts in the past to stop their evangelical activities,” the source said. “They took them into a pagoda to convert them forcibly to Buddhism.”

In June the Buddhists had threatened to harm Pastor Talukder if he did not give up his Christian faith. The pastor escaped and hid in different churches for two months. Later he came back in the area and began his pastoral and evangelical activities anew.

“They also made threats and gave ultimatums to three or four other churches in the locality to try to force them to come back to Buddhism,” the source said.

‘Social Deviation’

Regional Sub-district Chairman Sona Ratan Chakma told Compass that the “three renegade Buddhists” are being kept in the pagoda for religious indoctrination.

“They became Christian, and they were breaking the rules and customs of the Buddhist society, so elders of the society were angry with them,” Chakma said. “That is why they were sent to a pagoda for 15 to 20 days for their spiritual enlightenment, so that they can come back to their previous place [Buddhism].”

Chakma said the Christians have not been tortured but given punishment proportionate to the gravity of their “social deviation.”

“They were punished so that they can come to their senses,” he said.

Under Siege

The Rev. Leor P. Sarkar, general secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship, told Compass that the UPDF’s ultimatum was of grave concern.

“This armed group issued an ultimatum that by April 30 all Christians should come back to Buddhism, otherwise all of them will face the same consequences,” said Sarkar.

Christians are virtually in a state of siege by the UPDF, he said. None of them go to church buildings on the traditional worship days of Friday or Sunday, instead worshipping in their own houses.

Sarkar added that the tribal Christians do not have any political conflict with the UPDF.

“They simply persecute them for their faith in Christ,” he said. “Their only demand to us is to go back to Buddhism.”

The UPDF’s order to give up their faith is a matter of life and death, Sarkar said.

“A ripple of unknown fear gripped the entire Christian community there,” he said. “Everybody took fright from that menacing cruelty. The everyday life of Christians is hampered, beset with threats, hatred and ostracism. So it is a social catastrophe.”

The church leader urgently appealed to local government officials to come to the aid of the kidnapped Christians.

The UPDF is one of two main tribal organizations in the hill districts, the other being the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or PCJSS). The PCJSS, formed in 1973, had fought for autonomy in the region for 25 years, leaving nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed. After signing a peace accord in 1997 with the Bangladesh government, the PCJSS laid down arms.

But the UPDF, a political party founded in 1998 based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, has strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord signed 1997. Claiming that the agreement failed to address fundamental demands of the indigenous Jumma people, the UPDF has pledged to fight for their full autonomy.

Last year the PCJSS demanded that the government ban the UPDF for their terrorist activities in the hill districts.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Assailants Kill Hundreds of Christians Near Jos, Nigeria


Fulani herdsmen strike Christian villages, slaying mainly ethnic Berom with machetes.

LAGOS, Nigeria, March 8 (CDN) — An uneasy calm prevailed in Plateau state, Nigeria today following the killing of hundreds of Christians early yesterday morning in three farming villages near Jos by ethnic Fulani Muslims.

The mostly ethnic Berom victims included many women and children killed with machetes by rampaging Fulani herdsmen. About 75 houses were also burned.

State Information Commissioner Gregory Yenlong confirmed that about 500 persons were killed in the attacks, which took place mainly in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat villages.

“We were woken up by gunshots in the middle of the night, and before we knew what was happening, our houses were torched and they started hacking down people” survivor Musa Gyang told media.

The assailants reportedly came on foot from a neighboring state to beat security forces that had been alerted of a possible attack on the villages but did not act beforehand.

The attack on Sunday is the latest in several religious clashes in the state in recent months that have claimed lives and property. Plateau state is a predominantly Christian state in a country almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The Muslim minority has been contesting ownership of some parts of the state, leading to frequent clashes.

Bishop Andersen Bok, national coordinator of the Plateau State Elders Christian Fellowship, along with group Secretary General Musa Pam, described the attack as yet another “jihad and provocation on Christians.”

“Dogo Nahawa is a Christian community,” the Christian leaders said in a statement. “Eyewitnesses say the Hausa Fulani Muslim militants were chanting ‘Allah Akbar,’ broke into houses, cutting human beings, including children and women with their knives and cutlasses.”

Soon after the militants besieged Dogo Nahawa, the Christian leaders said, at 1:30 a.m. they contacted the military, which is in charge of security in the state.

“But we were shocked to find out that the soldiers did not react until about 3:30 a.m., after the Muslim attackers had finished their job and left,” they stated. “We are tired of these genocides on our Christian brothers and state here that we will not let this go unchallenged.”

Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) President Ayo Oritsejafor decried the attack on the Christian community as barbaric and urged the federal government to stop the killing of innocent citizens or risk a total breakdown of law and order.

“I have just returned from a trip abroad,” he said. “While I was away, I was inundated with reports of another catastrophe in the Jigawa state capital, where several churches were burnt, and just as I was trying to settle down and collate reports from the field, I am hearing of another on Sunday morning.”

Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Rev. Monsignor Gabriel Osu said the Sunday killing in Jos is a major setback for the country’s effort to gain the confidence of the international community.

“Do you know that because of things like these, anywhere Nigerians travel to they are subjected to dehumanizing scrutiny?” he said. “Any act of violence at this time is totally condemned, and the government should make haste to fish out all identified perpetrators of such heinous crimes against God so that we can move forward as a people united under one umbrella.”

On Friday (March 5) the National Youth President of the PFN, Dr. Abel Damina, expressed concern over cases of clandestine killings of Christians in remote parts of Plateau state by Islamic extremists and called on the federal government to retrieve sophisticated weapons in their possession.

“Even as I speak to you now, I am receiving reports that some clandestine killings are still going on in the remote areas of Plateau State by the fundamentalists,” Damina reportedly said. “They pounce on Christians and kill them without anybody knowing much of their identity except that they are Christians.”

He added that recently he visited the governor in Jos regarding the crisis and secured photos of Christian victims.

“Young men, Christians, were going to their farm to harvest their produce and the fundamentalists pounced on them,” he said. “They were called infidels. At the last conference, we received reports with photographs of the fundamentalists using AK-47 rifles to destroy our churches. Where did they get the arms from? We have reports of truck loads of arms that had been intercepted, and we did not hear anything about them.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRE CATASTROPHE


Over the last couple of weeks temperatures in south-eastern Australia have been steadily rising and finally reaching searing heatwave conditions in the last week or so. Temperatures have been between 40 and 48 degrees Celsius for almost 2 weeks in may inland areas of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. Finally the temperatures have peaked this weekend.

With the searing heat has now come strong hot winds and out of control bushfires. Many bushfires have become uncontrollable and unmanageable to any degree whatsoever and many are beginning to combine. These fires have become massive wildfires and are engulfing huge areas of inland south-eastern Australia.

The worst hit areas are to be found in Victoria where it is now confirmed that at least 65 people have died since Saturday – many more people are injured and missing and the death toll will climb. 700 homes and many other buildings including shops, police stations, service stations, hotels, motels, schools and many other buildings have been destroyed. Whole towns have been practically razed and wiped from the face of the earth.

This disaster is one of the worst bushfire catastrophes to have hit Australia, if not the worst ever. Certainly in the terms of loss of life this is by far the worst fires ever – and the disaster is ongoing, with many fires still burning.

Part 1:

Part 2:

ABOVE: An overview of the fires in Victoria

ABOVE: Bunyip State Forest Fire – photos from the start on Thursday through to Saturday

ABOVE: The Churchill fire in Victoria

ABOVE: Kevin Rudd activates the Commonwealth Disaster Plan

ABOVE: Various other reports

CHRISTIAN AID GROUPS FEAR CATASTROPHE IN REPUBLIC OF CONGO


Christian emergency response organizations have expressed alarm at a deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province and about brutalities innocent civilians are facing in a potential humanitarian catastrophe, reports Ecumenical News International.

The Geneva-based ACT International (Action by Churches Together) said in a statement on 30 October that it had accounts from aid workers of looted shops and dead bodies on the pavements in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Report from the Christian Telegraph