Dead dogs…non-communicable diseases: Australia’s pivot to the Pacific islands an opportunity to take Pacific health priorities seriously

Barely 100 metres from Australia’s High Commission in Nukoalofa, Tonga, lies this plaque – erected by the People’s Republic of China.

In 2012, China upgraded a small section of road in the Tongan capital, installing drains beside the sidewalk in a town prone to flooding.

Close by, in other parts of the town, rain collects in deep pools and has nowhere to run, even though the sea lies only metres away.  There are no drains.

And two blocks from the Australian High Commission, a dead dog lies in the water outside someone’s submerged front yard.  It takes days, people say, for the rainwater to subside.

Welcome to the Pacific.

Australia’s pivot to the Pacific is welcome news.

Although significantly driven by Australia’s national security interests, higher levels of investment and development assistance provide at least the possibility of alignment with the public health needs of the region, and an opportunity to take Pacific health priorities seriously.

Health security begins with adequate sanitation, drainage, and safe water supplies.  But increasingly, mitigation will be needed against tidal surges and seawater level rises, and the impacts global warming will have on agriculture and food security, water supplies, housing and livelihoods.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including diabetes and cardiovascular disease are out of control in the Pacific, thanks to high rates of smoking, obesity, and the displacement of traditional diets with cheap, imported junk foods.  A culture of feasting may also play a role.  (For further comment, see here, and here).

Significant progress has been made.  Around Nukualofa, for example, you’ll find fresh fruit and vegetable markets, and curbside stalls selling locally-grown produce.

Tonga has also innovated in ways that Australia has not, establishing a statutory Health Promotion Foundation (2007), and training new cohorts of NCD-specialising nurses.

In 2013, Tonga introduced an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and a T$1 per kilogram tax on a range of animal fats, in order to discourage consumption of fatty meat, including mutton flaps and turkey tails.  Taxes on fatty meats and sugary drinks were increased further in 2017.

But geography and the absence of economies of scale work against these dispersed island groups.  Tonga has beaches and coral waters to die for, yet it is not well known as a tourist destination.

On the island of Foa, in the Ha’apai island group, there are two low-key resorts owned by expats, where you’ll be charged NZ$60 for the 5km drive, across the causeway, to the airport.

A few Tongan nationals work at the resort, but how much money filters down to the impoverished communities that live on the island?

In any event, Pacific island economies need far more than tourism.  They need more economic activity across the board, and the infrastructure to enable it.

Throughout the Pacific, public health legislation needs updating.  Enduring sources of funding are needed to build regulatory capacity, including for enforcement.  Episodic funding, with heavy emphasis on epidemic preparedness, is of course welcome but leaves other core challenges under-funded.  The Pacific Commission’s Public Health Division has done magnificent work; this work, and the funding that supports it, needs to continue.

Australia’s “pivot” is an opportunity to re-set relations and to invest meaningfully in Pacific health priorities.

At least in this area, perhaps a bit of strategic competition isn’t a bad thing.

Are you interested in health law?  Sydney Law School offers a Master of Health Law, and Graduate Diploma in Health Law that is open to lawyers, health professionals and other approved applicants.  Click here, here and here for more information.