PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Of all the Pacific nations struggling with both health and economic crisis, PNG is closest to the failed-state precipice.
Countries with pre-existing conditions – poverty, limited healthcare, ineffective or corrupt governments – are fragile, and it is these countries that Covid-19 is threatening to push to the brink of survival.
Some have argued the United States has made solid start on the journey to failed-state status. But for the Australian government, the real concerns lie just to the north – Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, the ABC’s’s foreign affars reporter, Melissa Clarke, has reported in an analysis
Despite their obvious differences, both are at risk of becoming failed states because of the potential for a rapid decay of health, economic circumstances and — in a worst-case scenario — disintegrating public order.
In Canberra, thoughts have turned to what would happen if either country plunged into chaos.
Papua New Guineas’s brew of debt-laden government, poor health services and social fragmentation means it is uniquely placed to suffer at the hands of coronavirus.
So far, eight coronavirus cases have been detected in PNG, but there’s little to commend in the low numbers.
They’ve been detected in four different provinces, with no clear source for most.
It’s likely the virus is already spreading in the community without detection and without treatment.
Covid-19 will be an added burden to the country, which is struggling to cope with myriad other preventable diseases, such as tuberculosis and malaria.
“Its health system is on the edge of breaking, if not already broken,” director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, Jonathan Pryke, said.
The PNG government’s capacity to offer economic support is similarly scant, Clarke says.
Already looking for an emergency restructure of debt before the pandemic hit, it now has to deal with a downturn in the commodities market, which is a calamity for a resource-dependent country.
“It’s hard to define what a crisis looks like in Papua New Guinea,” Pryke said, because the usual markers, such as “unstable government and struggling institutions, are already a common experience”.
In Indonesia, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the archipelago. There are currently close to 9 000 detected cases of the virus and there have been more than 700 deaths.
But, as with PNG, the numbers don’t tell the real story.
Australian government officials fear that should coronavirus spiral out of control in either country, there is a real risk of public disorder and chaos.
That could be prompted either by political unrest due to frustration at government inability to contain the virus or offer treatment, or lawlessness as people fight for meagre medical resources or even food.
Of particular concern is the Highlands, where there is already tribal-based violence and conflict over land.
“If the state is less capable of keeping a lid on violence, which it already struggles to do, then the Highlands could descend into lawlessness,” Mr Pryke said.
While in PNG there is a degree of apathy towards government and national institutions, Indonesia has a far more restive citizenry.
If Jakarta falls short in providing support to those suffering because of the pandemic, “we’ll know about it”, according to Ian Kemish, a former diplomat with expertise across Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
For PNG, Mr Kemish believes the COVID-19 outbreak will be “a pivotal moment”.
“This really is one of its most challenging moments since independence,” he said.
However he said PNG had proven to be resilient.
“PNG has been judged by some to be on the verge of being a failed state almost constantly since independence, but rumours of its demise never really materialised.”