From her Port Moresby bedroom, alumna Jacquie Hennessy shares her experience of working in Papua New Guinea (PNG) during a global pandemic. COVID-19 cases are surging, overwhelming the country’s already weakened health system.
Jacquie graduated from the University of Tasmania in 2017 with a Bachelor of Paramedicine with Clinical Honours. She has also completed tertiary qualifications in paramedicine, health leadership, emergency management and tactical medicine from multiple other universities.
“I was working for New South Wales Ambulance as a Station Officer when a former colleague, who is now the CEO of St John Ambulance in PNG, invited me to come here. It was the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of thousands of people. I came here for a challenge and I certainly got one.
Before COVID-19 I was riding in a helicopter to some of the most remote areas of PNG to pick up mothers and infants who would otherwise die and responding to trauma cases that in Australia would be a once-in-a-career experience, but here is a weekly occurrence.
I'm one of the only emergency management specialists in the country and before COVID-19 we were trying to improve the level of pre-hospital education and experience in PNG. We introduced new certifications in ambulance practice and paramedics here will hopefully be recognised as “Pacific Paramedics” in the future by the Australasian College of Paramedicine.
St John Ambulance is the national ambulance service in PNG and my normal role is the Director for Clinical and Operational Support, but now I’m busy trying to help ensure the health system doesn’t collapse.
Because of the surge in COVID-19 cases I am now the co-incident controller, so I report directly to the CEO and everyone in the organisation, which is around 300 personnel, sit under me, which is a little terrifying!
My role is to command and coordinate everything that St John is involved with. On top of our normal emergency ambulance service and medical training, we run a drive-thru swabbing centre, at-home COVID-19 swabbing and medical services, and we recently opened a 300-bed field hospital. Normally this takes several weeks, but in a week, we turned a basketball stadium into a hospital. That’s what being a paramedic is all about, you learn to make do with what you have got. And the only way that you can do that is by thinking outside the box. That’s what my degrees have taught me: think outside the box, but still stay within a safe limit.
Controlling COVID-19 is difficult in PNG. We had a lockdown at the beginning of this pandemic, but it’s difficult when a lot of people exist day-to-day — they get their fresh fruit from the market, or they sell goods on the roadside. There is a lack of testing, so the true number of COVID-19 cases is likely higher than official reports. Simmering beneath that is tuberculosis, malaria, dengue fever, HIV and infant mortality. With health services swamped people aren’t getting the treatment they need for these other health conditions, so we are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
The health system here was fragile before COVID-19 and it is about to implode. In Port Moresby, we have three major hospitals, including the new field hospital, and all three are overflowing. People are isolating in their communities rather than their homes, but because one house is often multi-generational with 12-15 people, it’s difficult to actually physically isolate.
There are still many people in PNG that don’t believe COVID-19 exists, they think it is the flu. Mask wearing and social distancing isn’t widely practiced. On one hand we have people who are sick and dying from the coronavirus and others who still don’t believe it exists.
The vaccine roll out is also going to be challenging because of the logistical and geographical challenges. To reach some areas it is 12 hours on a boat or a barge. There may be some resistance to vaccine take-up because of social information misinformation and a lack of education. We will prioritise health care workers, because we don’t have a large workforce, so if we get sick there is no back-up.
The medical staff are doing their best, they are working every day and it is exceptionally and utterly exhausting. I don't remember the last day that I actually had off. It’s an overwhelming situation, but we know help is on its way. Medical staff and vaccines are on their way.
The thought of coming home did cross my mind more than once, but I’m here and I’m making difference. I’m using the skills that I got from growing up in Australia and going to university, and I’m being supported by my family.
I even got a video message from my former high school the other day. It was a message of support for me and the rest of the ambulance service. I broke down crying. It’s a daunting situation, but I’m not alone and to know I have people behind me, and supporting me, that’s the most important thing.
If there is one positive thing to come from this pandemic, as horrific as it is right now, is the way that it has brought people together. We are all closer as a community.”