By SUSAN MERRELL
In the remote Central Province district of Goilala, all 15 of the government aid posts are closed. For the villages of the district the nearest facilities are now in the township of Tapini.
Yet, in Port Moresby, the PNG government has, in its employ, 'managers' responsible for the running of the aid posts - they have nothing to do, but they still collect their pay cheques every fortnight. This notwithstanding, there's no available government money to keep the aid posts operational.
This is sheer bastardry that carries unimagined consequences.
Nowadays, in Goilala, to access medical services, many villagers need to walk for many hours, some for days. The district is as bereft of roads as it is aid posts.
Goilala has also been left particularly bereft of 'district funds' that are allocated by the government to the sitting Member of Parliament each year for distribution. Health secretary of the Catholic diocese of Bereina, Leontine Javia, says the health services of the district have not received "one toea" of these funds. It seems the allocated funds rarely get further than the Member's pocket.
So, it's the Catholic Mission that has stepped into the breach, providing 85% of the district's medical services - not by choice but of necessity. "We can't just sit back and watch people die," explained Father Brian Cahill, the Catholic parish priest alluding to the incidence of tuberculosis (TB) that is rampant in Goilala - leaving death in its wake.
As a consequence of the closures of the aid posts, many people who contract TB in the remote villages of Goilala are simply doomed to die. Having no recourse to health services they fall back on sorcery - but as the posters from the PNG Department of Health stipulate (ironically in English which hardly any villager speaks let alone reads) sorcery does not cure TB. But then neither does TB cure itself - and in the absence of anything better, well… who can blame them?
Another especially serious consequence of the closures is that most of the people who were receiving treatment for TB at the aid posts have become 'defaulters' as they fail to complete their treatment due to the tyranny of distance to Tapini. - the significance of which cannot be overestimated.
For although TB, in its basic form responds well to modern medicine the treatment is long and arduous - at least 6 months of drug therapy. If the whole treatment is not completed the TB bug can lay dormant and when and if it reactivates itself, it often becomes a strain that is resistant to traditional drug therapies and known as 'Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis' (MDRTB).
What's more, every time the clinic in Tapini runs out of the treatment drugs - a regular occurrence - their patients become unwitting defaulters and are at risk of developing the multi-drug-resistant strain and infecting others.
A highly infectious airborne disease that does not respond to treatment is potentially devastating and is feared by medical authorities the world over. Yet the PNG government has blithely contributed to its potential.
Recently, Goilala district has voted in new Member of Parliament. He is Daniel Mona, a member of the parliamentary opposition who was endorsed by former Deputy Prime Minister, now leader of the opposition, Belden Namah's PNG Party.
The district is hopeful that government services, virtually non-existent under the former member, will improve with this new appointment. The logo on the umbrellas that shelter the people from the sun's rays in Tapini bear testimony to Mona's popularity.
I was in Tapini the day after Independence Day and narrowly missed meeting the new member, who was in town for the celebrations. I caught the tail end of the festivities, funded by the Hon member who also distributed largesse from the party leader (cash) Namah had, in previous weeks, visited Tapini in the party-red PNG Party helicopter.
Me, I reached Tapini by a slower but cheaper method - by road.
After spending six hours in a Land Rover, travelling over bumpy and treacherous terrain, waiting patiently while willing, strong and able hands cleared up to 10 avalanches that threatened to impede our progress to Tapini, the luxury of a helicopter was bound to provoke envy.
But much worse off than me, were the sick villagers who had travelled many hours on foot with nary a road to guide them, (some sick women were also carrying sick infants) to attend the Tapini clinic - the only one in the area - there to receive their TB treatment.
In the waking hours of the morning they queued quietly and patiently.
Kope, a two-month-old baby, snug in his adopted mother Maria's bilum will never know his biological mother. She died from TB. Kope has it too..
Yet these are the lucky ones - they will be treated. TB, untreated, is usually fatal. In Goilala people are dying.
"You see dead people walking around," said health co-ordinator Leontine Javia remarking on the prognosis of many of the sick in Tapini. For even in the health centre in Tapini, a chronic lack of funding means they operate with a dearth of equipment and an unreliable drug supply.
The Tapini clinic is in desperate need of the means to make accurate diagnoses - an x-ray machine, pathological testing equipment. Most diagnoses are now made on the basis of physical examination alone.
When a 60 kina x-ray could make all the difference it must have seemed grossly inequitable when Belden Namah, a servant of the people, helicoptered into Tapini throwing around cash and promises. These ostentatious, grandiose gestures, however generous they seem, just makes beggars of the people. Goilalans don't need hand-outs - they need to receive the funding that's their due as tax payers and citizens of Papua New Guinea.
So PNG Party, you want change - start the process in one of your own electorates. I wonder how many aid posts can be re-opened, how many x ray machines bought from the proceeds of the sale of one bright-red, rich man's toy?