PNG mourns the death of the ‘father of the nation’
Sir Michael Somare has died at the age of 84. He passed away in Port Moresby from pancreatic cancer.
Sir Michael was the architect of PNG’s independence and become the country’s first Prime Minister in 1975. He negotiated his country’s entry into the Pacific Islands Forum. He was one of the founders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group along with Father Walter Lini of Vanuatu and Sir Peter Kenilorea of Solomon Islands.
He was the founder of the PANGU party and represented the people of East Sepik. He served as Prime Minister for a total of 17 years across several terms. His time in politics was not without controversy, including accusations of corruption and being removed from Parliament in 2011, sparking a constitutional crisis in the country.
The government of PNG has declared a two-week mourning period including two public holidays to mark Sir Michael’s death.
Border tensions between Bougainville and Solomon Islands
A recent skirmish between Bougainvillean fishermen and the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has highlighted border tensions in the Shortlands area. Previously, border crossing for fishing and other traditional activities was accepted. However, Solomon Islands has declared the border closed to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Recently, a group of fishermen from Bougainville surrounded a police patrol from Solomon Islands and took possession of a drone that the police were using to check for illegal fishing. The incident took place shortly before Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was due to visit the area. It does not appear to have interfered with the PM’s programme.
The government of Solomon Islands has now announced that they will be developing an outpost in the Shortlands that will support boat patrols of the border. The government of Australia will provide assistance with this development.
Political leadership in New Caledonia undecided
We still don’t know who the next President of the New Caledonia congress will be. For the first time in 40 years, the 11-person congress has a majority of pro-independence members. However, the two main pro-independence groups have not been able to decide who should lead the government.
The first attempt to elect a President was unsuccessful with a split vote.
The French High Commissioner has called a meeting of the incoming government for 2 March to try and resolve the impasse.
The political vacuum has significant implications. New Caledonia was not able to take part in the recent special leaders’ retreat of the Pacific Islands Forum at which the next Secretary-General was appointed. Closer to home, the budget is scheduled to be handed down in April and there are ongoing issues relating to the economy and impacts of COVID-19.
Solomon Islands to receive vaccines this month
Solomon Islands will be the first country in the Pacific islands region to receive vaccinations under the auspices of the COVAX programme. The government has been informed that it will take delivery of 24,000 doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in the next few weeks. That is sufficient to vaccinate 12,000 people or just under two percent of the country’s population. The priority will be those working In health and other frontline workers.
The Minister for Health, Dr Culwick Togamama, has met with officials from his department as part of the preparation for receipt of the vaccines. He has stressed the need to provide accurate and factual information to the public to counter the misinformation spread via social media and talk on the street.
Meanwhile, in Vanuatu, The Guardian reports that the entire population of just under 300,000 is unlikely to be fully vaccinated until 2023.
COVID-19 cases surge in Papua New Guinea
A surge in COVID-19 cases in PNG is causing concern for authorities. The number of recorded cases now stands at more than 1200 with 14 deaths. However, the low rates of testing in the country give rise to concern that the level of community transmission may be higher than is currently being recorded.
The surge has put a considerable strain on the health resources of the country, most notably in Port Moresby and the National Capital District. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many frontline workers have not been paid for a number of months.
Whilst comprehensive lockdowns have been used in Australia and New Zealand to combat outbreaks, there is some resistance to using this technique in PNG. The governor of the National Capital District, Powes Parkop, has argued that the economy cannot withstand the impacts of another lockdown.