MP warns Torres Strait Islands in danger of succumbing to virus outbreak

Torres Strait Islander communities are at risk from a growing Delta outbreak in Papua new Guinea due to a lack of essential goods supplies and healthcare, federal MP Warren Entsch says.

Sep 17, 2021, updated Sep 19, 2021

Treaty Islands like Boigu and Saibai sit in close proximity to mainland PNG but are recognised as part of the Torres Strait.

Much of their food and healthcare supplies prior to the pandemic came from the neighbouring PNG town of Daru, which is now in the grip of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Daru is roughly 50km from Saibai but treaty villages 4km from Australian territory have been cut off from the delivery of goods from the Torres Strait.

Federal member for Leichardt Warren Entsch said residents of these treaty islands were at risk of travelling to Daru for essential supplies like food, fuel and healthcare needs.

He labelled the response by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as “a bloody disgrace” as only two supply rounds to the islands have been organised since the pandemic began, the last of which was in February of this year.

“Early this year I was able to convince the department to supply basic food items for the treaty villages and we actually did two deliveries,” he told AAP.

“The problem that we had was that instead of buying it, or sourcing it from stores on Saibai and Boigu where it always comes from, they bought it out of Port Moresby.

“They had the capacity to supply food that the people understood and can cook, but now they decided to source it out of Port Moresby. The meat protein they come with is like sloppy soup. They couldn’t eat it.”

Because of the changes to supply, villagers have faced the risk of COVID-19 in mainland Papua New Guinea and travelled to exchange artefacts for more familiar essential items.

There’s a population of between 10 and 15 thousand in the treaty islands and Torres Strait, with many of those now vaccinated against COVID-19 through a blitz by the Queensland government.

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In the Torres Strait, 69 per cent of the eligible population have received their first dose, and 51 per cent of people are fully vaccinated as at September 10.

But until the population is fully inoculated the threat of COVID-19 will be ever-present and Entsch said the region still faced other healthcare issues.

“It’s going to be devastating in Daru. At the end of the day, if you want leprosy, cholera, tuberculosis encephalitis, meningitis… It’s all there,” he said.

“I just know what’s going to happen and I’ve been warning them (DFAT) for ages, and they just continually deny that there’s a problem.

“Neither the ministers, nor any of the staff are not aware that there’s a problem.

“If this gets into these treaty villages, and then extends to cross to Australia, then the DFAT has to accept responsibility for it.”

Comment has been sought from the department.

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