With Pacific Islands nations controlling 20 percent of all oceans, they are at the foundation of initiatives to help the planet and our health.
Pacific Island countries are at the pointy end of global health problems. They endure an uneven share of the ‘triple burden‘ of disease — infectious diseases such as malaria, non-communicable diseases such as obesity, and climate change induced health impacts. But they are also a crucial setting from which to inspire world leadership in planetary health.
The academic field of planetary health was launched in 2015 with the release of the Lancet-Rockefeller Commission Report, highlighting that the health and vitality of all human and natural systems are inseparably connected. Around the same time, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which touch similar themes, were internationally endorsed.
In the global and regional planetary health arenas, Pacific Island leaders are poised to drive action. Pacific Island nations are large ocean states, managing approximately 20 percent of the world’s oceans, the primary drivers of Earth’s climatic system. They are at a stage of development where their policy decisions will significantly affect the environmental and social wellbeing of the entire planet.
They also support among the richest array of cultures and ecosystems from which to respond to the intersecting demands of the SDGs. Recognizing the complex connections that exist between health of humans, other animals, environments, and the planetary system at large, are not conceptually new. Such ways of understanding health are rooted in ancient times, as early as Hippocrates in Western knowledge traditions, and central to many Indigenous knowledge systems.
While intergovernmental agencies call for unified action plans for health, environment and climate change, particularly in the large ocean states, Pacific leaders are leading the clarion call for climate action. Recent Pacific Islands Heads of Health and Oceania Planetary Health Forums reaffirmed the urgent mandate for a consolidated platform for Island nations to respond to regional and global health impacts. Unifying and strengthening research and action on human, non-human animal and environmental health, natural resource management, and Indigenous local knowledge were seen as key.
This is consistent with the core tenets of the latest WHO manifestoprescribing a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19, the Healthy Islands Visionand Blue Pacific narrative. These will guide policy development, investment and action to where co-benefits for economic development, public health and environmental stewardship are most likely.
The Pacific Islands have demonstrated political commitment to implement essential changes widely and rapidly – if scientifically rigorous and culturally appropriate solutions can be identified. In a recent demonstration of planetary health leadership, the Pacific Communitythe principal scientific and technical organization for the Pacific region, adopted planetary health as a key focal area of their 10-year strategic plan (2022-2031).
At the July 12 – 14 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, a draft 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent will be presented. It will guide how Oceania’s countries and communities will work together “to secure our region’s future against the challenges of today and the coming decades, to achieve a free, safe and prosperous region.”
Regional security can emerge from decisions that reflect a deep understanding that all societies and economies are embedded in the biosphere, and that functioning ecosystems are foundational to human health and well-being.
The major challenge for policymakers is understanding the complex positive and negative interactions among interventions to achieve SDGs to ensure that progress made in some areas is not made at the expense of lack of progress in others.
Planetary health research seeks to inform decision-making across different sectors. The research can identify interventions that support policy coherence and emphasize co-benefits in planning and financing. Regional leadership commitments to the foundational SDGs that maintain functioning ecosystems — for example on improving the efficacy of climate action, protecting life on land and in water, and providing sanitation and clean water — will provide clear, positive, and co-beneficial resonance throughout all global economies and sectors of society.
To drive truly transformative planetary health research within this globally important region it will require a consolidated long-term vision and sufficient funding. Strategic investment by regional leaders in a world-leading, action-oriented, place-based, interdisciplinary, research and policy hub that aligns with the aspirations of Pacific Islanders and the urgent global need for integrative solutions is a clear path forward. This investment could build upon existing planetary health investments by global philanthropic bodies and development aid agencies in the region (for example RISE ,WISH, KIWA), and the recent establishment of the Fiji Institute of Pacific Health Research (FIPHR).
The region and the planet will benefit by efforts to support Tadra Vanua, a combined term from Fijian and wider Oceanic languages, acknowledging that material, biological, social, and cultural dimensions are inextricably interrelated. It is a vision for Planetary Health achieved through a recognized Pacific Island model for health and well-being.
The Pacific Island countries are already demonstrating planetary health leadership. Now the region’s leaders have a timely opportunity to provide urgently needed global examples of approaches that improve human development and prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable, while simultaneously promoting environmental sustainability.
Dr. Aaron P. Jenkins (or Eroni in Fijian) is a Fijian citizen of Eastern European and native north American (Cherokee) descent who has lived and worked for decades with communities of the Pacific Islands. He is Oceania’s inaugural Senior Research Fellow in Planetary Health with University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, Edith Cowan University’s newly formed Center for People Place and Planet, and the Fiji Center for Communicable Disease Control. Dr Jenkins is a board member of the Fiji Institute of Pacific Health Research’s Center for Communicable Disease Research.
The WISH project, that Dr Jenkins co-leads, is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Indo-Pacific Center for Health Security, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
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