A day of intense drama officially ended just before nine o’clock on Wednesday night when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, James Marape, casually announced on his Facebook page that the test results of an expatriate mine worker suspected of COVID-19 had come back negative.
But it was the casual manner with, what appeared to be, little sense of urgency that added to the ire of many Papua New Guineans who had been demanding a total shutdown of airports and wharves.
It all started when earlier in the day when Health Minister, Jelta Wong, released a statement announcing that the Papua New Guinea had its first “probable” case of the dreaded disease.
Wong said the 45-year-old mine worker had traveled through Madrid, Barcelona, Istanbul then on to Port Moresby and Lae. He developed a fever and flu-like symptoms and had to be quarantined.
Over the next eight hours, the public went into a panic.
The word ‘probable’ was drowned in a frenzy of social media accusations and anger over the government’s delay in imposing a total shutdown.
The media tried getting a confirmation of the test results to no avail.
Nobody from the Health Minister’s officer to the Secretary was willing to say what the results were. By five o’clock in the afternoon after coming out of a meeting, Health Secretary Paison Dakulala, told journalists, he was going to make the announcement at 8pm at the NBC Studios.
When asked if PNG did in fact have a confirmed COVID-19 case, he said rather vaguely that that the tests were inconclusive and had to be done again.
The radio talk back show was cancelled within 20 minutes of the Prime Minister’s Facebook post. No official reason was given.
Within the hour, Health Minister, Jelta Wong, released another statement saying the patient in question was feeling better but had agreed to remain in isolation.
The day’s events brought the weak, fragmented front of the government’s crisis communications to the fore. While agencies, restricted the flow vital information and warned the media against creating a panic, the government’s own communication triggered panic.
As the global pandemic worsened in Indonesia to the West and as the Australians announced rapid escalation containment efforts in the south, Papua New Guinea dragged its feet.
The government remained unwilling to impose a lockdown despite widespread calls by its own citizens.
Then on Sunday 15th, Prime Minister, James Marape, he went on Facebook announcing that he would make a public address at 11.30am.
The Government team, opted to go to the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to deliver a broadcast to outline a series of steps the government was taking in light of the pandemic.
The expected live broadcast did not happen at 11.30am that day.
Instead, the NBC recorded the address and aired it on Monday night. Other media were given a press conference.
The Government’s slow, reactive approach to the COVID-19 prevention efforts is in itself a recipe for political disaster. Public confidence is at an all-time low after the government continues to delay a total ban on incoming flights.
And the suspected COVID-19 case given prominence today by the health Minister, has left Papua New Guineans wondering if they can continue to trust the government.