COVID19: Experienced from the remote province of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea.
From the perspective of an Australian citizen living through the State of Emergency in PNG
I woke up this morning as I usually do around ten past five in the morning. The soft sunlight was breaching the iron bars of my window designed to keep the rascals of Kenabot out; a reminder of the stark contrast between the pinkish-purple hues of the skies and the palm trees which fill the rest of my window view and the bleak necessity for security. But today there was something different, something missing. As I began my morning routine, checking in on the news, washing a few dishes from the night before and writing my ‘to-do’ list, there was a clear absence of the customary morning sounds of a community coming to life on a weekday morning.
The voices of children waking up and having their breakfast or singing out to their friends as they walked the streets to the nearby school are missing. The sounds of loud diesel engines passing the front gate and bus drivers beeping their horns were oddly emphatic in their silence. Even the music from boom boxes carried by teenagers as they make their way to bus stops was missing.
As I pull out of the driveway to make my trip into town where I need to access wifi from the closest resort, I am immediately reminded that we are in lockdown mode. For the first few minutes of my trip, I am the only vehicle on the road at a time when the streets are usually filled with people making their way to work and school. The streets are empty. I wonder if I’m the only crazy person leaving the house today, but as I start to descend the hill from Kenabot, I see a trickle of people commuting to places of work that have remained open. Arriving at the resort, I’m happy to see the security guard standing next to a sanitising station at the entrance and enforcing guests to spray their hands. I walk in, and I am the only person to be seen!
Not long before my ancestor, the formidable and spirited Queen Emma, met an untimely and somewhat mysterious end in Monte Carlo, she had implored her younger sister Phebe, my great great grandmother, to leave East New Britain and transition to a better life with her in Sydney. But Phebe refused. Ever since her arrival in the Bismarck Archipelago in 1882 where she had travelled with her husband Richard and their first born child from the Islands of Samoa, East New Britain had been her home. ‘If I leave, what will become of my people’?
I have thought about this scenario many times over the years as I research and connect with the story of Phebe, but over the past few days, I began to think about it even more as I too was faced with having to make a decision on whether to leave Kokopo and return to Australia with the announcement of PNG’s first confirmed case of COVID19 and the ensuing limitations of crossing Australian and PNG borders. The subsequent closure of domestic airline routes providing me with my only passage to get to an international airport has now removed the choice from that decision.
There were very few days between the confirmation of PNG’s first coronavirus case on Friday evening and the Government's declaration of a State of Emergency to take place as of Tuesday the 24th of March, grounding all domestic flights. That day is today. I did have enough time to pack my bags and I could have tried to get on one of the last flights out, but internally, the decision had already been made.
In another continuum of parallel connections that pursue myself and my dearest ancestor Phebe, I am at peace with my decision to remain. Initially, it was practical and logistical and maybe a little self-serving. With no known cases in ENB to date, I feel relatively safe and comfortable on this little island, where the sun shines, the sea is near and the energy remains calm. Rushing back to Australia to be self quarantined was also not appealing when I could stay here and potentially offer support to the ENB community. The business I co-own in Sydney, a fitness centre, has just been shut-down, the guests for my AirBNB have all cancelled, the film project I’m working on has come to a temporary halt with travel bans and the thought of sitting isolated and 'safe' in Australia should an outbreak occur here in ENB just didn’t sit well with me. In the same tone of great great grandmother, I thought to myself, "and what would become of my friends? My community?”
At a time when we are all asked to take individual responsibility, we are also reminded that it is a time for coming together and doing whatever we can to collectively support one another and our communities in whatever ways we can. I’ve offered my voluntary support to a friend who’s been to every disaster meeting here in the province, and should they call on me for help, I will be at their service.
In the meantime, my friend Jenny and I hustled up some kids and put together a couple of short videos and a series of COVID19 awareness images for social media that were aimed at informing the local community, done with local images and translated into Tok Pisin, using some of the basic advice from W.H.O. However small your contribution, it can all make a difference.
For me, staying on during a potential crisis and being an active member of this community, which has welcomed me with open arms since I began this journey of reconnecting back to this ples bilong mi, was a no-brainer.
And look, I’ve even started to blog again. Here’s hoping I can continue to bring you good news from the tropical isles of the Gazelle Peninsula over the next couple of ‘lockdown’ weeks.
PS. Feel free to share and post any of the social media images as you wish!
Keep ENB Province safe and healthy!