Stories

How Pamela is boosting PNG's scientific COVID-19 response

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Dr Pamela Toliman is a mother, mentor, Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) alumna, and senior scientist supporting a scientific response to COVID-19 at the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Institute of Medical Research

She says that while it has been “a huge challenge”, her experience highlighted the importance of building community trust, advocacy, and simple communication to ensure positive health outcomes and to save lives.

In the wake of the pandemic, Pamela is part of a scientific team at the PNG Institute of Medical Research that not only established PNG’s in-country testing capacity, but informed decision-makers’ and the public’s understanding of what was needed to effectively respond to COVID-19 from a diagnostic perspective.

This involved advocating for centralised local testing, and supporting the coordination of not only those tests, but secure communication of diagnoses, patient care, and ensuring those results inform government responses to the pandemic.

Why 'winning community trust' is vital in emergency response

“Something like COVID-19 really prompts us to have that effective communication between government and agencies.

“And the challenge I saw was that everyone wants to help and make a positive contribution … but how do you listen and decide what is the right thing to do, then get everybody on board with that one thing that’s right for the country?” asks Pamela.

She says part of the solution is “winning community trust and building rapport with people”.

“It’s about coordinating, balancing and listening, and understanding where they’re coming from, but saying, look, there might be a better way in which we could approach this, and winning the trust,” she explains.

Working with ‘what you have’ to boost public health knowledge

Pamela says that overwhelmingly she noticed a “misunderstanding and lack of knowledge and coordination of messaging around COVID-19.”

This highlighted a dire need to share knowledge fit “for public consumption”. For example, people were told to disinfect high touch surfaces but there was little consideration given to the general population’s access to expensive disinfectants or measuring utensils to prepare disinfecting solutions.

“You’ve got to use and look at what you have! Even in rural and remote settings you can find Coke. So, show people how they can use the bottle cap and the gradient on the bottle to mix their own bleach solution for disinfection,” she explained.

She reinforces that innovative and locally situated solutions that support public health and hygiene should not have taken a pandemic to share broadly.

“Washing hands is not just important in the age of COVID-19, we could be preventing other diseases … and this is an opportunity to improve our health and hygiene practices more broadly.”

Women lead advocacy for community safety amid swift crisis responses

Pamela says women – who make up more than 80 per cent of PNG’s health care workforce – have been leading the charge in calling for better community health protections. Not only for people in need, but the health care workers supporting them.

“It was the nurses on the front line who complained and said ‘we cannot do our jobs without personal protective equipment’, and that really pushed the government.

“They hadn’t thought about all these other pieces of the puzzle, about how to protect our workers. The advocacy came from women,” she explained.

Pamela’s research interests include monitoring patterns of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhoea and investigating the causes of respiratory disease in HIV-positive people in PNG.

She has a Master's degree in Medical Science, and has recently been awarded her PhD through the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, where she evaluated novel clinical algorithms for cervical cancer screening in PNG.

In 2016, she received the Australia Award's Allison Sudradjat Prize in recognition of her outstanding qualities as a scholar and emerging leader. Pamela will be using her Prize to support her post-doctoral research into COVID-19 population trends in PNG.   

While on the WLI Leadership and Mentoring program, she worked alongside her Australian mentor, Emily Hurley. Emily is the Acting Assistant Secretary at the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Economics and Research Division.