Ensuring that low and middle-income nations receive equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines has proved to be one of the most significant challenges of the pandemic thus far, and must remain a global priority in order for the pandemic to end.
Australia’s relative position of wealth and privilege means that our nation has been lucky enough to enjoy one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, with approximately 82% of our national population having received at least two doses of a COVID vaccine. However, the same cannot be said for our closest geographical neighbour, Papua New Guinea, where just 2.75% of the population is fully vaccinated. Without urgent support, recent modelling from the Lowy Institute estimates that it may take until 2026 for PNG to have just 35% of its population vaccinated.
In light of long-term commitments made to increase engagement and development support to the Indo-Pacific region in the 2017 ‘Pacific Step Up’ foreign policy priority, Australia undeniably has an ongoing responsibility to ensure the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in Papua New Guinea.
Contrary to popular belief, Papua New Guinea’s low vaccination rates are not wholly due to a lack of vaccine access; rather, they are due to widespread vaccine hesitancy and refusal, fuelled by social media misinformation, government distrust, and religious factors. Conspiracy theories that posit the vaccine as ‘Satan’s microchip’ or a tool for government control have spread just as quickly as the virus itself. Many communities are also turning to alternative health methods, traditional medicine, and prayer to fight the virus. The reasoning behind vaccine hesitancy needs to be fully acknowledged in any international response. It should be addressed with respect and empathy, rather than criticism.
Australia has already provided assistance to PNG, including $144.7 million under the Regional Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative; the provision of AUSMAT teams; and $21 million of direct funding for provincial health authorities. But this response has been inadequate to address the root causes of vaccine hesitancy. Australia cannot continue to expect that short-term donations alone will tangibly increase vaccination rates in the nation.
More should be done to prioritise culturally appropriate vaccine messaging, collaboration, and community engagement. This would help empower local leaders and organisations to shape discussions about vaccines with their communities. A model for this approach might be seen in the Western Province, which has some of the highest vaccination rates in the nation. Here, Q&A community awareness sessions were held as part of a partnership between provincial health authorities and World Vision. Australia should encourage the wide distribution of materials regarding COVID vaccines. This should be done by using platforms like social media and radio, and should take account of the 800+ languages spoken throughout the nation. Given that they are the first point of call for community health advice, Australia should support consistent education and training of healthcare workers regarding vaccines and their use.
Such support will not only reduce the burden of disease and death, but will undoubtedly benefit regional health security in the Pacific, working to prevent the risk of a new COVID variant developing on Australia’s doorstep. To affirm its status as the region’s primary aid donor, and in the face of increasing geopolitical competition and ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in the Indo-Pacific, it is therefore in Australia’s greatest interest to support vaccine equity in Papua New Guinea.
Emily Shelley is a fourth-year student at the University of New South Wales, studying a Bachelor of International Studies and a Bachelor of Media (Communications & Journalism). She has a particular passion for using digital and social media to educate youth about diplomacy and international affairs. Currently, Emily is a Digital Communications Officer at Young Australians in International Affairs and an Editor with the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership. She has previously interned at the Diplomacy Training Program, a human rights capacity building NGO, and in Federal Parliament, where she completed a research project investigating Australia’s role and responsibility in ensuring equitable COVID-19 vaccine access in the Pacific. These experiences have fostered Emily’s interest in Indo-Pacific politics, sustainable development policy, and humanitarian affairs.
Emily is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.