COVID surge weighs on PNG economy

The current surge in COVID-19 infections in Papua New Guinea is weighing on people’s lives and economic activity, if the latest Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Report is to be believed[1].

The report, which collates data from mobile phones to measure movement, shows that since Independence Day on September 16 people have pulled back on how much they are going to shops, parks and hopping on public transport.

Unsurprisingly, there was a surge in visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centres and bars on Independence Day and the days leading up to it. Independence Day is an important public holiday and the Google data show the volume of such outings soared by about a third over the period while supermarket shopping trips and public transport use jumped by about 10 percentage points as people took the chance to catch up with family and friends.

This year that effect was amplified by the fact Independence Day fell on a Thursday, and many took the opportunity to turn the break into a long weekend. Reflecting this, the Google data show that workplace attendance not only plunged on September 16 but remained well down the following day, a Friday, at about half its normal level.

 At the time, concern was high that Independence Day gatherings would become super-spreader events for the COVID-19 virus. National Pandemic Response Deputy Controller Dr Daoni Esorom warned that “there is a high risk of a surge in infections in the coming weeks and months”.

Tragically, those concerns are being borne out. Infection rates have soared, hospitals are struggling, mortuaries are beginning to overflow and doctors are calling for a national lockdown.

The Google data show that, even without a formal, government-mandated lockdown, people are already curtailing their movements.

Visits to café and restaurants have fallen away significantly since early September, shopping trips to the supermarket and pharmacy are trending down, workplace attendance has dropped and public transport use is about a third lower than it was a month ago.

The decision to go into lockdown is a tough one for any government, given the enormous cost to the economy and the great disruption to people’s lives that is involved.

Those concerns are magnified in PNG, where the majority of people are in the informal economy and the government’s ability to provide income support is very limited.

Government revenue has plunged in the past 18 months, forcing the Marape government to borrow $2 billion to cover the income loss. While the government has been able to retire K1 billion ($AU380 million) of debt this year and invest a similar amount in road infrastructure, the latest surge in COVID cases will continue to put public finances under great pressure.

The worst days of the pandemic for Australia’s closest Pacific neighbour may yet lie ahead.


[1] https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2021-10-18_PG_Mobility_Report_en-GB.pdf, accessed 22/10/2021.

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