International attention has been scathing of Papua New Guinea after revelations some HIV/AIDS victims have been buried alive by relatives unable or too afraid to care for them. The National Aids Council describes the news as a wake-up call for the country and the Government and police are under pressure to take firm action. But AIDS-associated horrors are, unfortunately, not new in PNG. Women accused of using sorcery to cause the inexplicable deaths of young children have been tortured and killed by mobs. Some reports say they were tortured for days to extract confessions of witchcraft. PNG is perhaps the world's most recent addition to modernity with people in the Highlands only making contact with the outside world in the 1930s. Before this, Highlanders had lived in isolation from the rest of the world for thousands of years. Highlanders who remember seeing a white man for the first time in their youth are still alive today.
Many ancient superstitions and beliefs, including the use of sorcery and witchcraft, still hold sway in parts of PNG. In the absence of medical services in many parts of the country, the rapid spread of AIDS can often only be comprehended in terms of witchcraft and sorcery. About 2 per cent of PNG's six million people are already said to be infected, a figure that is often disputed as being too conservative, with the UN warning of a potential epidemic. Doctors say three out of 10 patients suffer AIDS-related conditions.
By 2010, it is estimated 70 per cent of hospital beds will be taken up by AIDS sufferers, putting a huge strain on an already bare-bones health system. Despite booming mineral revenues in recent years, health expenditure indicators and the numbers of doctors and nurses available are among the lowest in the world. Health-care delivery in PNG has not collapsed since independence because of a lack of financial resources, but because of neglect, poor management and corruption. In 1980, most people lived four hours from a primary health post. It now takes four days to access clinics.
The weak position of women in traditional PNG society makes them particularly vulnerable to infection and many are unable to negotiate safe-sex practices. It is no coincidence that PNG women suffer from shockingly high levels of domestic violence. Basic education can improve the status of women but literacy rates are the worst in the region. The Government has made an effort, using print media, TV advertising and billboards, to educate men about the dangers of unprotected sex and domestic violence.
Some of this is working, with evidence of increased use of condoms and, in urban areas at least, greater awareness of AIDS as a medical condition. But this is not enough in a country where 80 per cent of the population live in rural villages cut off from even the most basic government services. Even in the largest cities, ignorance of the disease is startling. Recently, two women condemned as witches were tortured and burnt alive by a mob in Lae, PNG's second largest city and industrial heartland. For most of its post- independence history, the economy of PNG has stagnated while population growth has expanded. The worst projections are likely to be realised unless there are real changes in the conduct of government. Only with strong action in health services, education and economic development can a calamity of African proportions be avoided.
Gaurav Sodhi is a researcher with the Centre for Independent Studies.