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October, 3

Torres Strait communities fear worst-case scenario if virus spreads from PNG

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Emergency measures blocking flights from Papua New Guinea have been introduced, but people in the Torres Strait fear what could happen if the virus jumps the border.

As the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG spread, the Mayor of the Torres Strait Regional Council, Philemon Mosby, said that if the situation wasn’t handled correctly it could be “catastrophic” for the Torres Strait community.

“An outbreak in our region would be certainly devastating. The majority of our communities are very small in population and we have significant numbers of elderly and vulnerable persons,” he told the ABC’s AM program.

PNG, Australia’s closest neighbour, is believed to have more than 1,400 active COVID-19 cases, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the suspension of flights from PNG would last at least two weeks.

Some Torres Strait Islands and their residents are just a few kilometres from PNG — a short dinghy trip away.

Young indigenous student and boarding house leader bump elbows in outside courtyard.
Young people from the Torres Strait participate in a social distancing workshop during a trip to Cape York.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa )

A special treaty allows villagers on these islands to travel back and forth between the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea without visas, but the border has been shut since March 2020.

Councillor Mosby said he was still concerned by potential border crossings.

“We are certainly concerned [for] those islands that appear to be the frontier of the border,” he said.

Border patrols restricting movement

Dr Marlow Coates, the northern director of medical services for the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, is based on Saibai Island and he said there were almost constant border patrols happening at the moment.

“There’s still Border Force ever-present on the island not far from where I’m sitting,” he said.

“Some officers are on 24-hour patrol at the moment and there’s a boat positioned off to the north of us with radar or interception and detection of vessels that may be coming across.

“It’s actually quite rare now to have somebody come across.”

But he said the risk of the virus crossing the border was still real.

“Ever-present is the danger at the moment of that pandemic reaching across the border to a vulnerable community like Saibai Island or the rest of the Torres Strait,” he said.

Saibai from above
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait has near-constant patrols to prevent border crossings, according to Dr Coates.(Brad Marsellos)

He said chronic illness combined with other issues to make the community particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

“Overcrowding is a very big issue. There’s about 80 plus houses on this island with about 450 people living up here total, as you can imagine, the numbers and how that works out,” he said.

“It obviously raises concerns amongst the local population, but [also] for the rest of Australia, as well as a possible entry point [for the virus].”

Councillor wants border closed until everyone is vaccinated

Councillor Mosby said he wanted to make sure the federal government met with him before it even thought about re-opening the border.

“We understand as leaders of our region that from a global health council, they were talking about five years turnaround time, at least, for globalisation of vaccinations,” he said.

“So we are very mindful that it will take five years at least, and we don’t want to see the border open any sooner.”

Dozens of PNG healthcare workers stand in scrubs, face shields and masks
The WHO says PNG healthcare workers are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.(Supplied: WHO Papua New Guinea)

He said that would include the islands in the treaty zone, which have special travel rights.

“That would include the border closure or would include obviously Torres Strait Islanders coming and going, so that would apply to the other side as well.”

Effort to vaccinate Torres Strait communities

Australia’s National Rural Health Commissioner Professor Ruth Stewart lives on Thursday Island, at the southern end of the Torres Strait.

She said protecting remote communities from a viral spread from PNG was a particular concern.

“Our current problem is that there are increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Papua New Guinea and we are trying to protect the Australian rural and remote communities, it’s a serious problem,” she said.

National Rural Health Commissioner Ruth Stewart
Professor Ruth Stewart lives on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait and said high uptake of vaccination would be crucial for the Torres Strait Islands.(Supplied: Ruth Stewart)

She said the vaccination rollout, which began in the northern Torres Strait this week, was essential to keeping the community safe.

“The message that I would like to get out to everybody that I possibly can is COVID-19 vaccines that we have available in Australia are safe that it is much safer to be vaccinated against COVID-19 than to run the risk of ever getting COVID-19 yourself,” she said.

But, Councillor Mosby said some residents had doubts after reports that some European countries had paused rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Given the recent reports through the media about the European countries backing out or taking a pause on it, and also the opinions that we are hearing directly from Canberra about [MPs] having divided opinions on this, it has certainly raised alarms and is affecting the confidence of our people wanting to be vaccinated,” he said.

For now, Councillor Mosby is urging Torres Strait Islanders to check with Queensland health officials before making up their minds.

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