Misinformation and violence spikes in PNG as COVID-19 outbreak continues

Staff in PNG putting together hygiene kits to distribute to local communities. Photo: Caritas Australia PNG.

In the wake of the devastating outbreak of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea, recent monitoring of our COVID-19 information programs in the country found that the majority of communities in remote areas still have extremely limited knowledge of the virus and how to prevent its spread.  

“Just a few weeks ago a woman was sick and refused to go into the hospital for fear of being tested positive and isolated,” said Diane Unagi, Caritas Australia’s Country Manager in PNG.  

“People are avoiding being tested because they are worried that they will be locked up when they hear the word isolation.”    

"The bulk of population are not on social media or watching and reading the news - they’re getting their information by word of mouth. When messages are not communicated properly it increases the public health risk.” 


Common misconceptions about COVID-19 in rural communities 

Common misconceptions in marginalised communities include the belief that COVID-19 only impacts people living in cities and towns, and not people in rural areas. More vulnerable communities also reported that they are unlikely to pay for soap for handwashing only, when they could instead use it for dishes and clothes.   

“This resistance to COVID-19 prevention is a deadly risk in a country which has reported over 15,000 cases of COVID-19, with fears that the real figures are much higher,” said Emma Dawson, Caritas Australia’s Pacific Manager.  

“We’re supporting remote communities in PNG with awareness-raising activities. In the coming months, over 10,000 hygiene kits will be distributed, as well as awareness-raising printed materials and radio jingles – because if we don’t raise awareness about the importance of prevention, the hygiene kits are a lot less effective.”   


COVID-19 linked to spike in domestic violence in PNG 

COVID-19 has also had impacts on sexual and gender-based violence and Sorcery Accusation Related violence.  

“We’re seeing a significant spike in domestic violence,” said Emma Dawson, Caritas Australia’s Pacific Manager. 

“Rates of violence against women and children in PNG are among the highest in the world, with estimates that over 60 per cent of women have experienced violence at home. Our partner, Centre for Hope, is one of the few available crisis centres in the country, and it’s been at capacity for over five months.”  

Sorcery Accusation Related Violence is also increasing. This violence happens when a community blames a death or illness on sorcery from a local woman or man. The results are often shockingly violent, and have resulted in both the torture and death of local women and men. 

“Some women have been tortured and even killed because they were accused of witchcraft towards people who seem to have died from COVID-19,” said Roslyn Kuniata, Caritas Australia’s PNG Program Quality and Effectiveness Manager.  

“There is a lack of awareness and misinterpretation of information but also high illiteracy rates, which means that communicating also becomes a challenge. There is also the issue of language barriers, and how to spread messages in Tok Pidgin and local language.” 


Working with the Church to combat COVID-19 

Working through Church networks in countries like PNG, where the majority of the population identify as religious, means that we can more effectively reach people in very remote or marginalised communities.  

“Roughly half of the schools and health facilities in PNG are run by churches, which means that working through existing church networks is one of the most efficient ways to counter misinformation and build trust,” said Emma Dawson.   

Church networks are trusted messengers because they’re already a fundamental part of the fabric of the local community. This means that local Church partners are able to encourage people to change their practices more effectively than outsiders.  

Church leaders are also in a unique position to dispel any misconceptions about the vaccine, and Cardinal Sir John Ribat and other clergy have publicly shared their own vaccinations to promote awareness. 

Through our Church partners, we’re able to encourage people to go to health services that they can trust, because they’re run and staffed by local people – giving us reach into places where there’s minimal government infrastructure. For example, our partner Catholic Church Health Services has 248 health facilities, including three rural hospitals, 84 aid posts in remote areas, and over 1400 health staff.