Approaches to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Papua New Guinea: Government Measures and Public Responses

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape. Picture credit:  Australian High Commission Papua New Guinea

This In Brief captures the general perceptions and mood of a sample of Papua New Guineans during the state of emergency (SOE) imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Papua New Guinea (PNG). A short questionnaire was sent to 19 Papua New Guineans using an online survey platform (Survey Monkey) during the height of the lockdown in mid-2020. This In Brief describes some of the measures taken by the PNG government in response to the pandemic and, through the survey, offers insights into the impact of the pandemic on citizens and how they interpreted the government’s measures.

The survey was sent to friends and social media connections of the author from different economic and cultural backgrounds. Some are formally employed while others either own a small business or are students at tertiary institutions. While the majority described their place of residence as Port Moresby, some described living in other provinces; one participant indicated living in a rural area.

PNG government measures

In an attempt to address the presence of the virus in PNG and prevent it from spreading, a curfew was declared by SOE controller David Manning (also PNG’s police commissioner) on 28 July. The curfew covered the National Capital District (NCD), Central Province and Western Province, all of which had reported cases of infections. People were instructed to stay indoors between 10pm and 5am unless they needed urgent medical attention or had to go out due to an emergency. The curfew was accompanied by several emergency orders, including the prohibition of public gatherings except for markets in specific areas; a prohibition on the sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol; and a domestic travel ban.

In preparation for an inevitable economic recession due to the pandemic, the PNG government liaised with commercial banks, the Bank of PNG and foreign development partners to arrange a stimulus package worth K5.6 billion (US$1.57 billion) (Ling-Stuckey 2020:15–23). Unemployment has steadily risen as some companies and organisations lay off workers. Tourism in particular has been greatly affected, with 90.7 percent of 2020 bookings to PNG canceled, according to a PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (2020) report. The report highlights the severity of the impact of the pandemic on PNG’s tourism industry, including a K65.9 million loss and the laying off of 1209 employees since COVID-19 was first detected in PNG.

To support PNG’s COVID-19 response, the Australian government provided K1.7 million (US$476,850) to the PNG government and the Chinese government K970,000 (US$300,000). Additionally, the World Bank approved US$20 million (K70 million) to assist with combatting the virus in PNG.

While the allocation and spending of the stimulus package was being debated among citizens, the national parliament voted to extend the SOE a further two weeks. During an SOE, the police act under the order of the controller, not only carrying out their routine role of maintaining law and order, but also enforcing the curfew and other emergency orders and regulations under the National Pandemic Act 2020.

At the height of the lockdown, the issue of police brutality was highlighted, with reports of market vendors being harassed and robbed by uniformed police officers who claimed to be implementing the SOE regulations. Concerns were raised by the governor for East Sepik Province, Honorable Allan Bird, during the parliament session on 2 June. He stated that there were mothers in his province who had been belted by police officers under the guise of implementing SOE orders. In response to earlier complaints, Acting Deputy Police Commissioner and SOE Operations Commander Donald Yamasombi had established a toll-free National Police Internal Affairs hotline number for the public to report misconduct and harassment by police officers during the SOE.

Responses from the public

There have been concerns over the dramatic rise in prices of market/garden produce and store goods during the SOE. Survey respondents expressed financial anxiety, fears of becoming unemployed and challenges finding and/or using transportation because buses were restricted during the lockdown. Other concerns included an increase in petty crime, a fear of police 

officers and the disruption of daily business activities. The following are quotes from participants on how the SOE affected their daily lives:

  • COVID-19 has affected my means of earning an income. Although I’ve managed quite well with what was saved aside, it won’t last forever (Participant 5, male).
  • Being a first-time business owner of a small manufacturing company, I rely heavily on importing materials from China and transporting raw materials from rural villages in Morobe Province ... Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had to stop work for several weeks now to restructure my business model in order to continue (Participant 8, male).
  • It changed way of living here as movements were limited. Scared to go out not only because of COVID- 19 but scared of the police officers. There was anxiety and panic whether we would be still employed and how we were to support our families if we were to be laid off (Participant 17, male).


Participants also identified the fluctuating prices of essential commodities. For example, the price of garden foods and store goods (such as rice and canned food) increased while fuel prices decreased. Another challenge was transportation. Since most citizens depend on public motor vehicles (PMVs) to travel, they were unable to move around, either because the PMVs stopped operating or were not operating at full capacity.

In contrast with the negative experiences, some families saved money by buying fewer items, sharing costs and limiting their food consumption, as expressed by the following participants:

  • We’ve been limiting food consumption to save finances in the long term (Participant 5, male).
  • Food price gone up. But family shared burden of buying food, one week someone buys the next week someone buys food (Participant 18, female).
  • We had strict food rations at home and ensured we had enough food to last us for a month (Participant 17, male).


Although the Independent Consumer and Competition Commission sent out a notice warning shops not to increase the prices of goods, participants stated that some shops still did so. Also mentioned was the difference between the prices of goods in urban and rural areas. Participants living in Port Moresby observed that the prices of garden produce skyrocketed, while participants living in other provinces or rural areas stated that garden food was not as expensive because most people grow their own produce.

The following are recommendations made by survey participants: • The government should invest in the latest medical equipment, new medical research centres and the education of medical professionals.

• The government should upgrade information technology

infrastructure in key cities, especially Port Moresby and Lae, as well as invest in making internet access more affordable for everyone. Low-cost and widely accessible internet would mean that people could continue working from home.

• The government could engage local businesses to manufacture basic personal protective equipment such as facemasks and hand disinfectants.

• The government could tap into the agriculture sector and help transport surplus garden foods to other centres in the country, minimising the challenge of limited access to food. (An example can be seen in Morobe Province).

• Police officers and soldiers should be better trained in appropriate conduct and law enforcement during a pandemic or the implementation of a SOE.

• In the NCD, instead of using privately owned buses, which are evidentially non-compliant with social distancing policies, the government could employ the buses used for the APEC summit in Port Moresby.

As the country moves toward living in the new normal, it faces challenges in every sector, just as any other developing island nation would. Millions of kina have been budgeted in response to COVID-19 in PNG. The government has taken measures to attempt to prevent an outbreak and control the spread of the virus in the country. Despite all this, the survey respondents indicated that there are still areas that need improvements.

Author notes

Lorelle Tekopiri Yakam is graduate researcher with the Postgraduate Research Centre at Divine Word University in PNG.


Ling-Stuckey, I. 2020. Ministerial Statement on an Economic Stimulus Package: Responding to COVID-19. Waigani: PNG Joint Agency Task Force National Control Centre for COVID-19.

PNG Tourism Promotion Authority 2020. Covid-19 Crisis: Tourism Industry Business Impact Survey. Port Moresby: PNG Tourism Promotion Authority.