A state of emergency remained in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authorities continued to restrict the right to freedom of expression and intimidate journalists. Dozens of people were killed in inter-communal violence. Women continued to experience high rates of gender-based violence.
The government declared a state of emergency after its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in March but replaced it in June with the National Pandemic Act 2020. This act continued to raise concerns regarding parliamentary oversight and will expire only when the Prime Minister declares the pandemic or health emergency over. At the start of the pandemic the country closed its borders to people from all Asian countries, not limited to those with confirmed cases of COVID-19. This left some Papua New Guinean students stranded in the Philippines. Emergency regulations gave government officials wide-ranging powers to restrict the freedoms of movement and expression and impose quarantines. There were some reports of excessive force by police implementing the restrictions.
Only around a third of the population had access to electricity, and only 41% had access to safe drinking water. COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns negatively impacted food supplies and increased the cost of food.
At year’s end, parliament had not yet enacted laws to give effect to Bougainville’s vote for independence from Papua New Guinea in 2019. Bougainville remained governed as an autonomous region.
In April, the Minister for Police criticized two journalists and called for their dismissal after they reported on public spending of COVID-19-related funds. The emergency regulations included fines and imprisonment for vaguely defined acts such as spreading “misleading information” and could unreasonably limit the right to freedom of expression.1
By March, only four refugees and asylum-seekers remained on Manus Island, with all others sent to the capital, Port Moresby. The remaining 18 out of 53 men who were detained at Bomana detention centre were released by 23 January as reports of poor conditions emerged.
Sexual and other gender-based violence experienced by women and girls continued, with inadequate resources dedicated to addressing the issue. Women and children were at risk of physical and sexual violence from intimate partners, family members and their communities, including as a result of accusations of sorcery. Women and girls had limited access to sexual and reproductive health care services and abortion remained criminalized.
Sex work and consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults remained criminalized. In September, a sex worker in Port Moresby was gang-raped and beaten, prompting calls for stronger protection of sex workers from violence.
As part of the COVID-19 response, the government offered little assistance to those who worked in the informal sector, which disproportionately impacted on women.
High rates of poverty and the presence of other chronic illnesses, combined with limited access to health care, compounded the situation for those who developed COVID-19.
In March, 600 nurses went on strike due to concerns about the lack of safe and healthy working conditions. As of 21 December, Papua New Guinea had recorded 761 cases of COVID-19 and eight confirmed deaths. The most affected provinces were Western (bordering Indonesia) and Central (around Port Moresby). At least one health care worker died, and early outbreaks occurred in hospitals and a testing clinic. Medical professionals reported limited availability of appropriate personal protective equipment.
Ten people, including three children, were killed in Porgera in March, after a policeman was killed in January. Police expressed concerns that these were retaliatory attacks as a result of killings in 2019. In July, 24 people in Hela Province, including two pregnant women, were killed during three days of violent clashes between local communities. It was not clear what prompted these attacks, but the lack of adequate policing was a factor in increased communal violence.
In September, more than 150 residents of Bougainville filed a complaint against Australian mining company Rio Tinto in Australia, seeking reparations for alleged environmental damage caused by the operation of the Panguna copper and gold mine between 1972 and 1989.