International help is not coming fast enough to avert a Covid-19 disaster in Papua New Guinea, experts warned Friday, as the country braced for a further spike in infections by shuttering schools and approving the use of mass graves.
With record infections already forcing major hospitals to close or operate at reduced capacity, aid agencies said the delivery of 8,000 AstraZeneca vaccines from Australia by Monday might be too little, too late.
"The outbreak in PNG is rapidly escalating, with hospitals and clinics overwhelmed and many health workers already infected," said Medecins Sans Frontieres Australia director Jennifer Tierney.
The 8,000 doses are destined for frontline medical staff.
Australia has also urged AstraZeneca to divert one million more doses bought by Canberra to Papua New Guinea as soon as possible, but there is no indication yet of when they may arrive.
"What's needed is a bigger response, now, before the situation gets out of control," she said. "Papua New Guinea needed these vaccines yesterday."
Until now, Papua New Guinea had appeared to weather the pandemic better than most countries.
It recorded only 2,658 Covid-19 cases and 36 deaths since the pandemic began, in a population of around nine million people.
More than one thousand of those infections have been recorded in the last few weeks.
With only 50,000 tests carried out in the first year of the pandemic, officials fear the number of infections is vastly underreported and community transmission is now widespread.
In some locations almost half of those tested for Covid-19 are positive.
Late on Thursday authorities approved a series of measures to prepare for a growing surge -- including granting authority to dig mass graves for Covid-19 victims, and exempting medical supplies from import duties.
Schools have already closed, and from Monday non-essential movement will be limited. Mask-wearing will become mandatory for at least one month, although enforcement is likely to be difficult.
On Friday, the streets of Port Moresby were slightly quieter than usual, but few people were wearing masks or social distancing.
Officials and humanitarian experts have warned the country's health system -- already struggling with endemic disease, underfunding and an acute shortage of doctors -- is ill-equipped to cope.
Port Moresby General Hospital CEO Paki Molumi told AFP up to 70 percent of doctors and nurses had been forced to isolate or were off work, while Gerehu Hospital, the capital's second referral hospital, was closed completely.
There are believed to be fewer than 1,000 doctors in the entire country.
"The public hospitals are already overwhelmed and there are major delays in being tested and receiving results," said Diane Unagi, Caritas Australia's country representative for Papua New Guinea.
Almost 90 percent of Papua New Guinea's nine million people live below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures.