COVID-19 EMERGENCY CRISIS APPEAL

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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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The COVID-19 crisis has prompted an urgent expansion of ChildFund Papua New Guinea’s 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain (715-08000), a tele-counselling service providing support to people experiencing sexual and gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Established five years ago in response to PNG’s endemic levels of family violence, the national freephone helpline offers callers help on issues ranging from crisis counselling and safety planning to suicide intervention and referral to support services.

In 2019, Helpline staff responded to more than 23,000 calls.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, additional counsellors and information officers have been recruited and trained, allowing the service to operate across two shifts, with plans to expand the hours until later at night.

This will ensure the helpline has the capacity to respond to a rise in GBV incidents, spurred by lockdown measures and increased economic uncertainty within families.

Margaret Sheehan, CEO of ChildFund Australia, says: “The expanded Helpline services will give it a broader role and wider reach: not only will it be providing counselling for those experiencing domestic violence, but also vital health advice around COVID-19 and referring callers to national health services where necessary.”

The helpline now offers additional support to children and adolescents experiencing prolonged distress, in recognition of the secondary impacts that the pandemic may have on their psychological wellbeing.

Margaret Sheehan adds: “Communities in PNG already experience high rates of family violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate these tensions.

“The psychological stress on families is enormous, with many parents losing work and facing an uncertain future. Sadly, this may result in more children both experiencing or witnessing abuse in their homes.”

The Helpline service is being promoted nationally in PNG using SMS blasts and radio announcements to ensure that people can seek help.

Bridgette Thorold, country director of ChildFund PNG says: “ChildFund and FSVAC are committed to driving change and will continue to implement programs and services which address the causes of violence; build the capacity of our legal system and strengthen the services available to survivors.

“We all have a part to play in building a safer community for the women and children of Papua New Guinea, and in upholding their right to live free from all forms of violence.”

For anyone experiencing or witnessing family violence, the 1 Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain offers immediate tele-counselling and referral services across the country. Call freephone 7150-8000.

The 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain is a partnership between ChildFund and CIMC (FSVAC) and is supported by the New Zealand Aid Programme. The expansion of services in 2020 has been made possible thanks to UNICEF and UN Women.

ChildFund is deeply concerned about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Papua New Guinea, and is working with government officials and other non-government organisations in the nation’s capital of Port Moresby and Central Province to ensure children and vulnerable communities are protected.

This includes helping to reduce stigma and break down any barriers that may prevent people from remote communities from getting tested for COVID-19.

ChildFund Papua New Guinea Country Director Bridgette Thorold said: “It is important that people, especially people in remote areas, know how and when to get tested.

“We are extremely worried that this virus could spread to remote villages undetected, and that would be disastrous. That is why we need to continue to educate the public and provide vital health information and advice to families and communities.”

The new lockdown provisions announced by the PNG government last week threaten to further disrupt TB and other essential health programs in the country.

Not only will healthcare workers and organisations like ChildFund be prevented from travelling to rural communities to conduct outreach programs, but children and families will be unable to journey to clinics, which are often located long distances from their homes.

The number of COVID-19 cases in PNG has been growing at an accelerated pace in recent weeks following an outbreak at Port Moresby General Hospital.

A fortnight ago, Papua New Guinea had 11 confirmed cases. That number increased to 32 last Friday, before jumping to 62 confirmed cases on Sunday 26 July 2020.

Although the majority of cases are linked to the hospital, there are concerns the disease is more widespread and that people are not getting tested because they fear discrimination, or have little understanding of the disease and how infectious it is.

ChildFund has been helping to break down these barriers by integrating COVID-19 prevention into all its work.

In recent months, this has included expanding our 1 Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain, which has now been resourced with additional counsellors to respond to the increased number of calls relating to family violence, while also providing information about COVID-19.

In addition to the health risks posed by the virus, ChildFund has warned of the detrimental impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable children.

A report released by ChildFund Australia in June warned that there may be an explosion of infectious diseases in Papua New Guinea as a result of the diversion of health resources to the COVID-19 response.

The ChildFund report also warned the already overwhelmed health system in PNG will struggle if there is a significant outbreak of COVID-19.

Port Moresby General Hospital, which provides healthcare support to those living in the nation’s capital as well as communities in Central Province, has been forced to scale down its services as a result of the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

“The measures that are put in place to prevent the spread of the disease are essential, but we are concerned that these measures may come at a cost,” Bridgette said.

“PNG already has dangerously low levels of vaccination, and has fewer than 1,000 doctors. For many years now it has been struggling to deal with an ongoing tuberculosis epidemic.

“These services are as important as ever.”