The swift escalation of COVID into a global health emergency revealed deep fractures in health system infrastructures and an insufficiency in the resources required to sustainably manage a crisis of such magnitude. 

On 11 November, #AllInThisTogether – are we really? co-hosted by UNSW School of Population Health and Oxfam Australia, as part of the School’s In Perspective conversation series, brought together a live panel of experts to discuss the impacts COVID-19 has had on Pacific health systems. 

Included on the panel were Lyn Morgain, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia, Dr Nima Asgari, Director of the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, Dr Stephanie Williams, Australia’s Ambassador for Regional Health Security, and Sunia Soakai, Deputy Director of the Public Health Division, Pacific Community (SPC).

Opening proceedings, Professor Rebecca Ivers, Head of UNSW School of Population Health said:

“While border closures have effectively protected some Pacific states’ health systems from a surge in COVID cases, as has occurred in Australia, they've also had unintended consequences, including breaking essential supply chains, disrupting essential health care delivery, and destabilising health programs.”

The panel chair, Dr Adam Craig, Senior Lecturer in Global Health at the School of Population Health, facilitated the in-depth conversation, as panellists shared insights and discussed how to strengthen health systems in the Pacific. 

Sunia Soakai, Deputy Director of the Public Health Division, Pacific Community (SPC) said:

“At the beginning [of the pandemic] it is fair to say that people were overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation. All health workers were repurposed into a COVID-19 team, even if you were delivering babies. The traditional, essential health services that any country delivers in what we call peacetime, were also affected. People were missing their diabetes appointments at outpatient clinics. People were missing their child immunizations. Mothers weren't coming in for their antenatal care, so those were some unintended consequences. Now, after the storm, we are taking a step back to see how we can re-engineer the support that we provide.”

Lyn Morgain, who is also a member of the Australian Council for International Development Board and the Trust Board for Oxfam in the Pacific, said: 

“The challenge going forward is to get all of our development investment on the right footing and to understand that the pandemic has in some respects been a health crisis, but it is ultimately an economic crisis of gargantuan proportions and that will have profound impacts for the systems that are available to us to utilise into the future.” 

Dr Nima Asgari of the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies said:

“There has been a discourse saying that health should not be seen as a cost issue, but actually as an economic development issue, and I think COVID has proven that and has brought it to the forefront. There is extremely strong linkage between health and the wider economy.” 

Dr Stephanie Williams, Australia’s Ambassador for Regional Health Security, said:

“We saw that what made countries do well [in response to the pandemic] was taking an evidence-informed approach and having responsible leadership and engaged citizens. From an observer’s perspective, those features have stood out in how individuals and leaders from the Pacific have come together to forge solutions, agree on evidence, and work though the crisis together. It's not to say there aren't challenges - the key vulnerability is that there are just not enough resources to begin with; and here we have an event that has diverted all attention and all effort in so many places.”

Pointing to a positive impact, Mr Soakai said:  

“I have been exposed to a host of networks that I would not have had the opportunity or the privilege to work with before the pandemic. The big picture here is to respond and react and support fragile health systems.” 

The panel agreed that the impacts of the COVID pandemic will continue to reveal themselves for years to come. It is crucial that Pacific governments and their development partners work together and keep learning, adapting, and communicating so that solutions to the structural inequalities that hinder health system development can be addressed. 

Watch the event here

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UNSW School of Population Health