Pacific Media Watch

18 March 2020

PNG: Drama and panic as Marape government blunders through first Covid-19 crisis

PNG Prime Minister James Marape (left) and Health Minister Jelta Wong ... poor communications muddle over a "probable" Covid-19 case that wasn't. Image: EMTV News

PORT MORESBY (EMTV News/Pacific Media Watch): A day of intense drama officially ended in Papua New Guinea just before 9pm yesterday when 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 earlier in the day when Health Minister Jelta Wong released a statement  announcing that Papua New Guinea had its first “probable” case of the deadly disease.

READ MORE: PNG has ‘probable’ coronavirus case, declares health minister

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 unsuccessfully tried getting a confirmation of the test results.

Announcement promised
Nobody from the Health Minister’s office to the Secretary was willing to say what the results were.  By 5pm 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 talkback show was cancelled within 20 minutes of the Prime Minister’s Facebook post. No official reason was given.

Within an 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 communications 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.

Public address
Then on Sunday, March 15,  Prime Minister James Marape 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 yesterday by the health minister has left Papua New Guineans wondering if they can continue to trust the government.

The Pacific Media Centre collaborates with EMTV News and republishes articles with permission.

Pacific Media Watch

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Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators. (cc) Creative Commons