That is the question…

Ukarumpa roadThere is a new default greeting as you pass someone on the road in Ukarumpa…. are you leaving or staying?

Some of the departures involve people who had already scheduled furlough leave in the coming weeks and months, and bringing the date forward is simply expedient in the light of closing borders and reduced international flight services. Others have been required to leave as they fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19 due to pre-existing health concerns, or from having had too many birthdays during their lives. Many expats have been encouraged by their mission organisations to seriously consider returning home, and it is this third category in which we find ourselves. There are multiple factors, and we hope that this can clarify for our supporters the process we have gone through in coming to the decision to stay on in PNG.

1. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in PNG to date.
The PNG Government is responding as best they can with available resources, but as a late entrant into the process, they also have the benefit of learning from the experiences of other countries. PNG tends to be more of a final destination than a stopover for international travel, with minimal points of entry for international flights. It also appears that testing protocols at these entry points are working well to minimise the threat.

2. In Ukarumpa, we are more removed from the large urban areas where COVID-19 may potentially have the greatest impact.
Our organisation has already taken steps to limit travel which may be inappropriate and are prepared for a future which may involve a quarantine status within our community to some degree.

3. By staying, we may make it easier for someone at risk, or for families with children, to make the difficult decision to leave.
As an older couple (but not too old!) we can choose to be more effective in our work schedules, we can survive on less supplies, and we don’t place many other demands on stretched community services, such as schooling and health care.

4. We honestly believe we can be of Kingdom service by remaining.
This is the big one! If we were not really needed here, of course we would leave. Our work in Finance (Keith) and now administrative support in the Medical Clinic (Elspeth) are critical to the continued operation of the mission base. Without Finance processing, the supply and logistics systems would be compromised, and the Clinic is at the forefront of the response to the current situation. We also want to be here for our PNG staff. They have a hard road ahead if COVID-19 reaches a point where it is directly impacting their communities and families.

On that note, we are being realistic regarding the very real threat that COVID-19 poses for PNG communities, so we ask that you pray with us in regard to these specific issues.

1. That COVID-19 not become a widespread health issue in PNG. The comment has been made that it would be a miracle of grace for PNG to be spared in this way. God is a God of miracles, and a God of grace, and for this reason alone we pray.

2. That the social issue (which is already here) not be something which divides this country in destructive ways. There is a growing social media wave of misinformation, dissatisfaction, and scare-mongering. PNG is no different from the rest of the world in this way. Already, people are blaming foreigners for the situation we are in, and it may not take much for this to represent itself in aggression towards the many people who have made a home in urban PNG centres.
Similarly, if COVID-19 does arise in urban areas, it is unclear how the rest of the population in rural areas may react. They may take action into their own hands to block travel, and repel anyone looking to escape the virus by returning to their home village areas. This could very easily get out of hand.

3. On a more holistic level, the idea of self-quarantine, and social distancing is totally at odds with PNG culture. Here, family is everything, and “family” is a broad term which extends beyond the borders of house and even village. It extends to those of one mind, and one spirit. It especially extends to the family of God. Pray that this situation does not result in PNG people becoming insular, suspicious of outsiders, and less welcoming. That would not be the country we have come to love.

To live in interesting times…

This is a very brief update, with an emphasis on currency.

Our mission community is meeting tonight (Wednesday) at 7:30pm for an open information and discussion on the implications for all of us of the COVID-19 issue.

Many of our friends have already been impacted – holiday leave in Cairns has been cancelled; stopovers in Australia to renew decade old friendships as folk complete their PNG assignments have had to be forsaken; translation staff in remote assignments have been requested to return to the home base in Ukarumpa. These are all regrettable disruptions, but I cannot help but think of the thousands who have lost loved ones already, who may be undergoing quarantine and treatment, or who may be in genuine fear of contracting the virus.

We have been effected in terms of Keith’s father, Ross, and a family friend, John, having to cut their visit short by several days to avoid getting trapped without a flight back to Brisbane. We are thankful that an earlier commercial flight was able to be booked, and that our mission organisation could find seats on a connecting flight to Port Moresby.

Please be praying for wisdom for our mission leaders, here in PNG and in the home countries, as they determine the best course of action for all of us.

It has been suggested that we should consider returning to Australia, but we feel secure and supported here – no COVID-19 cases have been reported in PNG to date – and would hate to see our work grind to a halt as a result. That said, we also need to respect the position that our supervisors are in.

Accounting (yawn)….

AccountantIf you are under 50 years of age, you may not remember a TV advertisement for H&R Block which featured a tax agent at her computer. To the voiceover, “Margaret just found a large tax saving for her client”, the agent gives a silent fist pump, then looks around before returning to her work. Accounting is not often described in terms of excitement, but several developments in my [Keith] work of late could at least be considered momentous.

Coming into the Finance manager role carried some concerns, particularly that as an organisation with its administrative base in the USA, many of the financial principles are different from those applied in Australia. With one exception….

When an issue came up related to GST processing, my comments on how to approach it were met with glazed looks. It turns out that Americans do not necessarily have a firm grasp of GST complexities. I had found my niche! Further investigation soon revealed that the organisation had a GST credit with the PNG Government totalling 750,000 kina around AU $300,000 and there had neither been an effective means of reporting on this, nor a clear intent to resolve the issue. [ In case any accountants are reading this….. it’s a long story, but just understand that Government procedures in PNG differ from those in Australia. ]

Together with one of my PNG accounting staff, and the input of IT support, we have corrected some errors with various computer systems and can now submit the appropriate reports to recoup the funds. We have offset around 90,000 kina so far this year, and are aiming to have the entire amount recovered by September.

Exciting? Perhaps not. Momentous? It certainly makes a difference in our operational budget for the year, and anything that extends the capacity of SIL to advance Bible translation in PNG is momentous in my estimation.

Please pray …
• praising God that He has equipped us to serve in PNG
• that Keith can make time to recruit and train staff in the Finance Office
• that SIL continue to show good stewardship in administration areas, that the work of Bible translation is effectively supported