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

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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 to the virus. 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.

 

The government declared a national state of emergency (SoE) to slow the spread of the virus across the country, schools have been shut, business activities have been limited and major restrictions on both international and domestic travel have been put in place.

 

Handwashing with soap is a crucial 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.

 

A COVID-19 response is a WASH response

 

With support from the Australian Government, through Water for Women, WaterAid is working closely with the Wewak District Development Authority (DDA) and East Sepik Provinvial Health Authority (ESPHA) to strengthen the government's approach to COVID-19 awareness and commuinty preparedness with a focus on dispelling myths and inluencing people to adopt preventative measures to reduce the spread of the virus. With established networks and experienced staff in East Sepik, through their Water for Women project, Inclusive WASH for the people of Wewak, WaterAid has been well placed to carry out this work rapidly and efficiently. WaterAid continue to adapt and scale their work to reach even more communities in PNG. 

 

To conduct COVID-19 awareness and preparedness, WaterAid has taken a collaborative approach, undertaking direct community outreach with PNG 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.

 

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

 

To conduct the awareness work, WaterAid developed messaging packs and provided briefings to government teams on delivery. The messaging focuses on hand hygiene and inclusive set of COVID-19 prevention behaviours, consistent with the World Health Organization recommendations (handwashing with soap, respiratory hygiene, maintaining social distancing, cleanliness, food hygiene, and referral). 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 properly and frequently.

 

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

 

Collectively the COVID-19 outreach teams have already visited 147 rural communities with 45,248 people. The outreach process will 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 will reach an additional 38,000 people.

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