For Major Mark Vele, the opportunity to lead a contingent in his native Papua New Guinea just made sense.
Born in PNG to a Papuan father and Fijian mother, Major Vele knew from his home in Brisbane that PNG, like many other Pacific island nations, was faced with a significant challenge at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little did he know how the pandemic would impact him personally.
“I spent almost 18 months on Operation COVID-19 Assist, most of the time as a lead planner with the joint task group in Queensland supporting Australia in its fight against COVID-19,” Major Vele said.
“I knew PNG was having its challenges with managing COVID-19 and I always feared for my family back home.
“Never did I imagine that I would lose my brother Allan to COVID-19.”
At the time of his death, Allan Vele was a senior pilot flying Boeing 767s with Air Niugini, PNG’s national airline. He wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19.
An Army reservist for more than a decade, Major Vele was spurred into action by the tragedy and nominated for the role of contingent commander for the Operation PNG Assist vaccination training and support team.
Operation PNG Assist is part of the whole-of-Australian Government support package to PNG, following PNG’s request for assistance last year.
“Because I already had a strong connection to PNG, and reasons to return, I felt it was meant to be," Major Vele said..
“In doing so, I felt this could be a chance to give back to PNG and a way of honouring Allan’s life.
“I held the view that if my efforts on this deployment were able to encourage Papua New Guineans to get the COVID-19 vaccination and, consequently, they were able to minimise the impacts of COVID-19, then I was doing my bit.”
Major Vele and his team worked closely with PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) partners rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine to PNGDF personnel and their dependents.
Operation PNG Assist personnel delivered advice, training and assistance to PNGDF health staff about COVID-19 vaccination planning, procurement and delivery, and data capture.
The broader Australian Government response to COVID-19 in PNG is supplying vaccines, supporting vaccine administration, and working closely with key international and local partners to combat the impact of COVID-19.
With his heart in both PNG and Australia, it is from a unique perspective that Major Vele shared his insights.
“Take the time to understand how fortunate we are to live in Australia,” Major Vele said.
“COVID-19 is impacting PNG and other Pacific island nations in different ways.
“The heightened awareness through social media, the existence of cultural barriers and social norms, and the geographical spread all add additional layers of complexities for the management of COVID-19 in PNG.
“In a country that has over 800 living languages and several thousand communities, each with its own customs and traditions, there are always going to be challenges.
“The average Papua New Guinean doesn’t view toilet paper as a critical item on supermarket shelves – access to food and medicines are more important to them."
It is said if you’ve lived in PNG for any significant period, you never really leave.
“For many of us who grew up here, the pull to return is always strong, so any opportunity to do so is a bonus," Major Vele said.
“Deploying to PNG has enabled me to immerse in the culture again, and to see family. It was also an opportunity for me to visit both my father’s and brother’s resting places.
“Operation PNG Assist has involved a greater integration into the PNG Defence Force, so this trip has brought a new experience.
“It's been most rewarding to return to my home land and to lead the ADF’s vaccination training and support team.
“What better way to commemorate my brother’s life.”
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