Last weekend dozens of Papua New Guineans lay in at least four of the nation's major hospitals desperately in need of oxygen to prevent them from dying from the Covid pandemic.
I was sent a desperate text message from one Papua New Guinean doctor at a major hospital highlighting the lack of oxygen, ventilators, and even the most basic medicines and drugs. He sought prayers stating that only prayer could help his patients, and colleagues, in the tragic circumstances that were rapidly escalating.
It emerged on Monday that major hospitals were without oxygen because the PNG Health Department had owed the major oxygen supplier K14 million ($A6 million) for some time. As a result supplies were not delivered to the nation's public hospitals. By Tuesday payment had been made and oxygen supplies were delivered to major hospitals.
We do not know, and will never know, how many Papua New Guineans, many of them young, died because of this gross negligence and incompetence by officials charged with ensuring hospitals and health centres have absolutely critical supplies, especially oxygen.
With national elections due in Papua New Guinea within nine months there is no chance the PNG Government will hold an independent inquiry into how Covid funds have been spent, and why every hospital in PNG has had inadequate medical supplies and oxygen for weeks, if not months.
But the time has arrived for there to be an independent inquiry into the adequacy and suitability of Australia's assistance to the PNG National Government since the pandemic began 20 months ago.
The inquiry could be conducted by the Federal Parliament's Foreign Affairs or Public Accounts Committee or a select committee appointed by resolution of the Senate or the House of Representatives. Or it could be set up by the Prime Minister.
The inquiry, in whatever form it takes, should not be a "witch hunt" aimed at individual officials, or ministers. It needs to be a wide ranging and forensic examination into how Australia's generous support was determined, and how it has been distributed in Papua New Guinea.
Australia has easily been the most generous supporter of our nearest neighbour in responding to the pandemic. The total value of our direct Covid support exceeds $350 million. Some of that has been in the form of skilled medical advisory support, and the generous supply of high quality vaccines. We also supplied some other needs such and oxygen and ventilators.
But a substantial portion of our support has been in the form of direct cash payments to the PNG Government. There has been no transparent assessment of what has happened to the cash. There is a widespread belief in Papua New Guinea that some of it when directly to MPs to provide urgent Covid response services for their "districts" or electorates.
To our generous $350 million plus in support directly relating to the pandemic, Australia has continued to be the leading deliverer of aid (Development Assistance) amounting to around $600 million this year. To that needs to be added the $250 million Australia "lent" PNG last year to help fund a growing budget deficit. The same, or more, is expected to be given again this year.
So in total our assistance to Papua New Guinea this year alone will be around $1 billion.
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