Where is Kiunga? It is in the North Fly District of Western Province in Papua New Guinea. Our diocese covers the whole of the Western Province.
The province has a border with West Papua, so there are many villages along the border. These have interactions with the villages on the other side. Kiunga itself is some distance from the border.
In Kiunga, we are isolated from the rest of the world with access mostly by plane. One can also come here by boat, but it takes several days before you arrive. We have a couple of roads, but these are all to towns and villages within our province. They do not link the other places.
Our surroundings are basically jungle and swamps. When we heard the news that there was a virus spreading around the planet, it was the topic of conversation among the people.
Initially it was curiosity but as the spread increased the reality of its consequences became real. The central government followed the steps of most countries around the world — lockdown, social distancing, hand washing, etc.
Education needs to feature high, to communicate the message far and wide. Fortunately, this isolation in Kiunga breeds an incredible communication system because somehow everyone will know the news in a couple of days once it is released. Even the most remote of villages somehow get the message.
Would isolation limit the spread of the virus? Would it be easy for us? Yes.
Because isolation from the outside world would not be difficult, but isolation within our villages and towns would be a lot more difficult.
Custom is that contact with people is central to the ‘wantok’ system. Closeness to family are all important. So, the concept of social distancing has been a real challenge for the people.
As the word spread around for the need to be careful, the feedback was the people were feeling scared and afraid. Facts needed to be carefully presented together with the message that fear was not necessary, but the need to exercise care for your health and that of others.
Maintaining social distance was always going to be a problem as people are at close quarters with each other, especially if family or from the same village. Your private space was also their space.
A positive outcome has been that the people have taken diligently to washing hands more frequently during the day. Like most parts of the world it has now necessitated the installing of washing facilities at the entrance way to a public building before entering them.
At this time the government has deployed about 400 soldiers along the border with West Papua where they have cases of COVID-19. They also give awareness and most importantly stop people from crossing the border at this time of the pandemic.
The ‘Good News’ is that, (as I’m writing this) there are no positive cases of COVID-19 in the Western Province. About 900 tests taken proved to be negative, which is so encouraging because our health system doesn’t have the capacity to deal with many acute cases of the virus.
One difficult thing about the lockdown was that we could not have our Masses and other religious celebrations at the church with many people. In early May this changed a bit. The directives allowed us to have our religious service but with the following conditions: Keep a distance of 1.5m between the participants and the washing of the hands before entering the church.
In all our parishes this has obliged us to have more Masses than usual. For instance, at the cathedral in Kiunga we had three morning Masses instead of one and people from different zones were marked to attend one of these Masses. A surge in cases in July encouraged us to be more careful.
Our poor people have been good in their efforts to deal with the situation. Many of them are struggling because they cannot make use of their little markets as usual. But in many families, they are gathering together on Sunday for the family prayer with the help of a guide prepared by their parish teams.
Tony Janssen is the financial administrator for the Kiunga Diocese and project manager of the Eaglewood Plantation in Papua New Guinea.
This is an edited article from Church Alive a publication of the Catholic Bishops Conference Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands.