COVID-19 messages and PNG sociocultural beliefs

Artwork on the roadside in Madang town in PNG as part of the Madang Provincial Authority’s health communication strategy during COVID-19 (Photo credit: Professor Fr. Philip Gibbs)
Artwork on the roadside in Madang town in PNG as part of the Madang Provincial Authority’s health communication strategy during COVID-19 (Photo credit: Professor Fr. Philip Gibbs)

The social marketing of important preventative health messages through visual graphics can have significant negative impacts on people’s lives given their low literacy skills and their strong allegiance to religion and Christian beliefs. This article tells the story of how ordinary Papua New Guineans perceive the disease and interpret it with their own cultural and religious contexts and the various preventative health messages that have been delivered to them.

The current outbreak of the viral disease COVID-19, which started in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 sent shockwaves across the world, infecting millions of people and so far killing more than four hundred thousand globally. Misinformation, questions and misconceptions about the disease abound, leading to fear, anxiety, confusion, panic and stigmatisation. This is further exacerbated by both social and mainstream media coverage regarding the trajectory of the virus and how to mitigate it. The government’s efforts to stop movement, both domestic and international, and close down schools and universities and other statutory bodies and systems have further fuelled the public’s panic and anxiety.

Social distancing strategies such as quarantine, keeping 1–2 metres away from other people, washing hands with sanitiser, and avoiding social gatherings are completely new and unfamiliar experiences for the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Messages about these non-pharmaceutical interventions have been delivered in various forms, such as by radio, television, visual posters and graphics. Most people have little or no access to radio or TV news but have been exposed to visual graphics hanging in front of big supermarkets, stores, bus stops and other public places. These messages have caused not only fear and panic but have had significant implications in relation to core social and cultural values.

Family and community values such as social bonds, love, care and social support which have been strong for centuries have been replaced with suspicion, blame and rejection. For instance, a family from Simbu Province who lived in Sisiak Settlement in the Madang Province for many years decided to return to Simbu in March during the one week “grace period” before the lockdown of the Highlands Highway became effective. When they arrived in Simbu, no one was willing to take them into their house. They were seen as carriers of the virus and rejected. Their immediate families refused to welcome them home and provide food and accommodation. They felt unwelcomed and strange in their own land.

In another scenario, an East New Britain woman who tested positive to COVID-19 complained that she and her family had been stigmatised by the community, and negative media reports. Indeed, she complained of media sensationalism and threatened to sue the mainstream media companies for defamation based on human rights abuse.

These experiences demonstrate how preventative health messages about COVID-19 are received, understood and interpreted through people’s own social contexts and realities. Misconceptions about disease transmission could put people at risk and make them vulnerable. Similar experiences were seen among Papua New Guineans when the first cases of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were detected in 1987. As Dundon and Wilde recorded, most people blamed the outsiders as carriers of HIV without considering their own social and cultural factors that facilitated the viral transmission.

While public health prevention and promotion messages are important to mitigate the spread of a disease of such magnitude as COVID-19, it is also imperative to consider the potential negative implications they may have. The visual representations of the disease as cartoon-like creatures with horns popping out of their heads, sharp long teeth and flame-like tongues sticking out of their mouths are reminiscent of religious images of Satan and the Devil. While commenting on the graphic shown in the featured image, one woman in her mid-fifties said: “Ol komkom ino save lotu so Satan kam blo kilim ol i dai [The Chinese are not Christians so Satan comes to kill them].” As Aletia Dundas has written, most Christians in PNG view major disasters and disease epidemics as divine punishments for sinful behaviours.

Religious fanatics and so-called street preachers have taken advantage of the situation, preaching in towns, streets, and villages about COVID-19 as a sign of the End Times, Last Days or Second Coming of Christ – something that most Pacific Christian leaders have cautioned against as dangerous, as alluded to in Dundas’ article. Still, others, as reported by Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer, believe falsely that God is protecting PNG from COVID-19. While this may sound as indoctrination and is incongruent to established medical explanations, it is consistent with and in some cases confirms people’s religious beliefs and explanations. The rapid growth of religious fundamentalism in PNG poses great risks to both the current and future public health emergencies.

Health promotion and prevention messages are vital to influencing people’s behaviour on important health issues like COVID-19. However, how these messages are planned, prepared and delivered may not be culturally appropriate. The mismatch between important public health messages regarding issues such as viral transmission, social distancing and quarantining and the actual visual graphics of frightening images could prevent the transmission of the intended messages to the people. Public health social marketing products regarding very serious health issues like COVID-19 should take into account people’s sociocultural and religious beliefs and backgrounds. Preachers also need to be careful not to undermine scientific understanding.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series.

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Gabriel Kuman

Gabriel Kuman is a lecturer at the Divine Word University in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, with the Department of Public Health Leadership and Training.


  • FROM Peter Dwyer & Monica Minnegal
    Thank you for your article. We agree that it is important to present information to people in culturally appropriate ways. It is not easy, however, to know either what information is culturally appropriate or what ways of presenting information are culturally appropriate. In an earlier COVID-19 Devpolicy Blog, Aletia Dundas wrote of Christian leaders who are providing ‘messages that support government directives and medical advice, and they are offering biblical references to back up their words’ [May 12, 2020]. By contrast you have directed attention to messages that may cause ‘fear and panic’ and have ‘significant implications in relation to core social and cultural values’. You note that some of these messages come from ‘religious fanatics and so-called street preachers’. Getting the balance right is both important and difficult. We have been monitoring some social media sites and, in general, consider that many people are able to uphold close adherence to their own cultural values while adopting an objective and critical stance with respect to available information. The key site we watch is not overwhelmed by interpretations based in conspiracy, fake news or selected Biblical verses. Many people probably lean to the understanding expressed by Prime Minister James Marape at the time the State of Emergency was lifted. He wrote that he ‘saw the hand of God’ in the survival of the eight known cases of COVID-19 and he thanked ‘all church faithfuls, who fasted and prayed for PNG not to be ravaged by the devastation coronavirus can cause as it is causing in many established countries globally’. We suspect more Papua New Guineans will be thanking God for their survival than arguing that the pandemic was punishment for their sins. At this time, we think that it may be government messages rather than quasi-religious messages that must be presented with care. In the past few days, a ninth positive case of coronavirus has been detected in PNG. Many early responses on social media are suspicious. Is this fake news? Is this a ploy to raise funds? The ‘culture’ at stake here is not of the past; it is very much of the present and it is focused more on the secular than the sacred.

    • Peter & Monica,
      Thank you very much for your comments in regards to my article. As you rightly stated many Papua New Guineans lean to what the Prime Minister has stated and many faithful Christians prayed for God’s mercy and protection during the period of COVID-19. Having said this, however, we have two types of people – one is educated and urban based and the other is illiterate and rural based. The rural based population makes up 80%-85% of the country’s population and whatever information that is transmitted to them in times of crisis like COVID-19 is often taken for granted. If care can be taken when preparing important public health prevention messages then we would do justice to most of the rural based population who are the main consumers. A more culturally appropriate way to present messages would be to have pictures of real people in proper dressing washing hands with sanitizer or people standing 1-2 meters apart or health workers visiting the locals and telling them to stay home rather than having the unseen viral killer represented in some form of frightening graphic images. This gives completely wrong impressions to the illiterate majority in the villages and in settlements around suburbs. I concur with you that no “quasi-religious messages” must be presented.

      In Papua New Guinea a variety of Christian movements are popping up everywhere trying to convince people and gain numbers. Besides the mainline Christian churches who are able to understand the crisis situations and comply with the government’s instructions and spread the right message, there are other smaller Christian sects who often preach at market places and spread false messages. Their messages are often full of fear and misleading and in times of national health emergencies like COVID-19, it poses great risks for the public. A warning to market and street preachers on spreading false information that undermines scientific truth and understanding during health emergencies would be appropriate for the future.

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