Papua New Guinea's massive Ok Tedi mine closes as Covid cases spread to new areas

Ben Doherty Pacific Editor
·3-min read

Cases of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea have spread to new provinces, forcing the closure of the massive Ok Tedi mine, and sparking warnings that a surge in infections, potentially in the thousands, could strike the country in the next few months.

Seven workers at the Ok Tedi mine near the Indonesian border have tested positive to Covid-19. The mine has traced the infections back to a single worker who is believed to have contracted the virus from a person who had flown from Port Moresby to Kiunga on a commercial flight late last month.

“The employee is currently working in our operations, travelling to and from work on buses. It is likely that more people have been infected, giving rise to an unacceptable risk of accelerated transmission within the Ok Tedi workforce,” the mine’s chief executive Musje Werror said in a statement.

Ok Tedi mine – a hugely profitable gold and copper mine worth billions to the PNG government’s already-parlous finances – will be shut for “at least 14 days to limit further transmission and allow contact tracing, isolation and testing procedures to be implemented”.

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PNG has now recorded 153 confirmed cases – low by global standards – but a record jump of 39 in a day, and up from 11 just three weeks ago. There have also been two deaths.

Professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Papua New Guinea, Dr Glen Mola, said PNG’s new case numbers were to be expected, and would worsen. Covid-19 was slow to reach PNG initially, he said, and the country is now showing the rising trends most countries were exhibiting two or three months ago.

“In August we will have hundreds of positive test infections and perhaps thousands in September to December. But we must stay calm and handle things as best we can; fear of the epidemic could be worse than the actual epidemic itself,” Mola said.

“Let’s hope we can ‘flatten the curve’ sufficiently to allow our health system to not fall over, but without locking down the country so much that the whole country ‘falls over’ economically.”

A significant number of cases have been recorded among health workers in the capital, Port Moresby, raising concerns that medical staff are not being given adequate protective equipment or that hygiene protocols are failing.

Workers at the country’s dedicated Covid isolation ward – a converted netball centre in Port Moresby – have gone on strike because they haven’t been paid. The country’s health department has promised they will be paid by Friday.

Port Moresby is in lockdown, including a night-time curfew, mandated mask-wearing and the closure of schools, businesses and public transport. But cases are spreading from the capital to previously Covid-free parts of the country including Sanduan province, near the porous border with Indonesia. There are also cases in Western province, East New Britain and in the Eastern Highlands.