In mid-October Dr Clement Malau, a Harvard-educated public health specialist and former secretary of the Papua New Guinea health department, was alarmed to discover he had gone viral. Only he hadn’t.
Someone had posted a 20-minute audio clip as a “speech from Dr Clement Malau regarding the vaccine”, the orator sliding between English and Tok Pisin – PNG Pidgin – to deliver an eloquent, tub-thumping rant against Covid-19.
By the time Malau was alerted, the clip was super-spreading across Facebook and WhatsApp groups, propelled by high-profile PNG figures. It’s still there, feeding into anti-Covid and anti-vaccine zealotry.
Access to social media remains relatively low in PNG – Pacific communications expert Dr Amanda Watson says there are only around 600,000 smartphones in circulation in a population of nearly 9 million, and most households aren’t online. But the online maelstrom is quickly broadcast into communities via the “coconut wireless”, or word of mouth. It fuels the distrust underwriting the nation’s disastrously low vaccination rate, with less than 4% of the adult population fully vaccinated despite the availability of jabs in all provinces. Meanwhile, a third wave of the pandemic overwhelms hospitals and overflows morgues.
Malau tracked his impersonator, forwarding details to authorities. “And they have done nothing.”
So he’s using Facebook to try to counteract the lies “all by myself”. He has acquired nearly 5,000 followers, many desperate for reliable information which they will, in turn, share with their wantoks (communities). With respect, empathy and lots of “God Bless PNG!”, he goes toe-to-toe with the angry and the fearful.
Malau understands the landscape and the stakes all too well. He was director of PNG’s National Aids Council in the 1990s when many of his compatriots didn’t believe in HIV. His team had to devise clear, simple messaging that would resonate across a diverse nation of 800 languages and low literacy.
While he encourages Covid-19 vaccination, and posed for cameras in Port Moresby when he got his first jab in May, Malau argues that jabs alone won’t cut it in PNG. “If we do not understand our own setting, we will be bulldozed down the track of just vaccine alone.”