COVID-19: PNG, Timor Leste four times more at risk than Aust

New analysis by the aid agency CARE Australia suggests most countries in our region, such as Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste, are up to four times more at risk from COVID-19 than Australia.

CARE Australia CEO Peter Walton said health services were incredibly stretched in most Pacific Island and many Southeast Asian countries even before COVID-19.

“Some of our neighbours already have confirmed cases in the thousands, while others are bracing for a future nightmare scenario,” Mr Walton said.

“This pandemic and its economic repercussions are going to hit the world’s poorest the hardest, and many of these people are in our own corner of the world.”

Using data from the INFORM Global Risk Index, the analysis offers a glimpse into which countries will struggle the most – health-wise and economically – in the long term.

CARE’s analysis identified Papua New Guinea as being the most at-risk country in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, followed by Timor Leste and Myanmar.

The analysis was based on seven indicators related to COVID-19 – exposure to epidemics generally, access to healthcare, underlying health conditions, vulnerable groups, food insecurity, social-economic vulnerability and communications capacity.

Australia and Singapore were identified as being equal-second least at risk out of the 28 countries in the region, following New Zealand.

“Given Australia is already struggling to cope, this is a sober warning of what kind of fate could await our neighbours,” Mr Walton said.

CARE’s Country Director for Papua New Guinea, Justine McMahon, said the country’s health system was already operating at capacity.

“We’re really worried about what a COVID-19 outbreak would do to the health system’s ability to care for other sick people and pregnant women,” Ms McMahon said.

“PNG is susceptible to disease outbreaks and every second birth in Papua New Guinea already takes place without a skilled birth attendant.”

During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, more women died from obstetric complications than from Ebola itself. As with Papua New Guinea, maternal mortality was already extremely high in the West African country, but the epidemic made things even worse as health services were stretched and pregnant women avoided hospitals.

CARE’s Country Director for Timor Leste, Peter Goodfellow, said CARE was working with schools and communities to promote handwashing and social distancing in support of the government’s COVID-19 strategy.

“People are doing what they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but this can be challenging for those living in remote, rural areas where at least one in five households don’t have access to safe water.”

“We’re also particularly worried about women and girls. They’re usually the ones tasked with looking after sick family members, which puts them at greater risk of catching the virus.”

With the UN Secretary General warning the virus could keep circling back around the globe until all countries eliminate it, CARE Australia CEO Peter Walton said it’s in Australia’s interest to help our neighbours.

“Helping the world’s most vulnerable people in the fight against COVID-19 is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

He said government support for the charities that deliver Australia’s aid program was vital at this time.

“Australian charities play a vital role in our region and this pandemic is threatening the world’s poorest communities at the same time as we’re facing unprecedented economic downturns. Support for lifesaving aid and to aid organisations themselves is critical.”

Donate to CARE’s COVID-19 emergency appeal.

Read an overview of the analysis. Images are available on Dropbox.

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