Dispelling myths, raising awareness and preparing for COVID-19 in remote Papua New Guinea

4 min read
The long road ahead to rural areas of PNG
Image: The long road ahead to reach rural areas of PNG

When word of a new unknown and potentially deadly virus started spreading in Papua New Guinea (PNG), many people were terrified. Understanding little about COVID-19, its symptoms and how to reduce risk of transmission, the people of PNG are particularly vulnerable.

Like many other countries, PNG’s National Department of Health rushed to release information to the public in a rapidly changing situation. With the public knowing little about the virus, rumours and myths about COVID-19 started to rapidly circulate in the community, leading to stigmatisation and several incidences of violence towards people suspected of having COVID-19.

people washing hands in PNG
Handwashing is the first line of defence in slowing the spread of COVID-19

WaterAid is urgently working in PNG to help with the response to COVID-19, however, there are many very real challenges. 87% of PNG’s 8.5 million people live in remote and challenging rural areas, with limited access to essential services such as water, sanitation and hygiene, health and education.

PNG lacks health systems to effectively respond to a pandemic such as COVID-19, the country has amongst the lowest health worker densities in the world with only 0.5 doctors per 10,000 people[1]. There are approximately 500 doctors in PNG, mostly in major towns throughout the country.

In rural areas, health services are extremely limited and ill-equipped to deal with many significant health issues. Handwashing with soap is a key COVID-19 preventative measure shown to reduce infection rates and save lives, yet only 37% of the population have access to basic water supply and only 28% of the population have access to a handwashing facility with soap and water at their household.

On top of this, few are aware of disease transmission pathways, further compounding the risk. With such a rural population, dispersed, scared and confused, WaterAid asked the question, how can the government provide effective COVID-19 messaging, dispel myths and educate people on how to adopt preventative measures to reduce the spread of the virus?

A 4wd drives to reach rural communities in PNG
It is no easy task to reach the many rural and remote communities in PNG

WaterAid has been working in Wewak District, East Sepik province since 2007. With the support of the Australian Aid program’s Water for Women fund, WaterAid is working closely with the Wewak District Development Authority (DDA) and East Sepik Provincial Health Authority (ESPHA) to strengthen the government’s approach to COVID-19 awareness and community preparedness.

To conduct COVID-19 awareness and preparedness, WaterAid has been conducting direct community outreach with our government partners. Since 25 March 2020, WaterAid has worked with ESPHA and the DDA to mobilise six teams, who have undertaken COVID-19 awareness and preparedness across Wewak District.

celebration at a school for the Armani project
Image: A celebration at a school for the Armani project

The teams visiting communities include key government staff, health promotion officers, community health workers, security and police. Several teams also include representatives from the East Sepik Council of Women, to support referral pathways for family-based violence and ensuring the inclusion of women and people living with disability in COVID-19 awareness and preparedness.

Official messaging has been strengthened to promote more harmonious communities and reduce stigmatisation around COVID-19. Demonstrations have also been undertaken on how to construct low-cost solutions for handwashing infrastructure (tippy-taps), to enable more people to have the ability to wash their hands with soap.

People constructing a tippy tap
Demonstrations have been undertaken on how to construct low-cost solutions for handwashing infrastructure (tippy-taps), to enable more people to have the ability to wash their hands with soap.

With WaterAid’s planning, logistical and financial support government teams are working on COVID-19 awareness and preparedness across the entire Wewak District. This includes reaching remote and challenging environments by road, foot and by boat.

Collectively, the COVID-19 outreach teams have already visited 147 rural communities with 45,248 people. The next round of COVID-19 outreach in Wewak will begin shortly, prioritising villages not included in the first round. The outreach process will then be repeated to re-enforce COVID-19 awareness and preparedness. It is expected that over 62,845 rural people will be reached by direct outreach, while COVID-19 campaign activities in Wewak’s urban area (Wewak urban LLG) will reach an additional 38,000 people.

Rural communities in PNG are being reached with COVID-19 and hygiene awareness information

WaterAid is working closely with East Sepik Provincial Health Authority for neighbouring districts to include similar approaches to COVID-19 awareness and preparedness, to reach up to 350,000 people across more than 1,000 villages. With such remote and rural population and the threat of COVID-19, WaterAid’s work with the government of PNG has never been more important.

Find out more about our work in PNG here.


This article was written by Tim Davis and Tegan Dunne

[1] Global Health Workforce Alliance 2020, WHO, accessed 8 May 2020. https://www.who.int/workforcealliance/countries/png/en/