14 April 2020

Real heroes do still wear capes

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Ainslie Ballinger / anslie@nwkcom.co.nz

With New Zealand’s obesity rates putting pressure on our wider public health system, could inspiring us to collectively tackle COVID-19 be just the start for nation’s scientists?

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on our future attitudes towards health, although only time will tell whether there will be a shift in how we address the long-standing and divisive issue of childhood obesity, an issue health experts around the world have long been grappling with.

Experts are having a renaissance in New Zealand – media are jostling to get a few minutes with infectious disease Public Health Clinicians, Microbiologists and Epidemiologists. The curve tracking the trend to favour other attributes over qualifications and experience has for now flattened.

The Prime Minister’s speeches are peppered with every day Public Health lingo – expert, data, evidence. Our Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, is giving the PM a run for her money communications-wise and is currently referred to as the most trusted person in the country. He is the subject of memes and fan pages cropping up across social media feeds.

New Zealand’s Public Health system is one enshrined in law, with its workforce running behind the scenes striving to keep people safe and healthy. This includes our hospitals, GPs and specialists preventing and dealing with diseases that usually come about because of the way we live, such as obesity, cancer and type 2 diabetes. 

Most developed nations have some form of Public Health system (the situation in the US is talked about a lot), but in the last decade or so globally Public Health has faced sustained and substantial funding cuts, and through under-investment some functions have become seen as ‘nice to have’.

Recently, our Prime Minister recruited each and every of one us to become part of New Zealand’s Public Health Workforce, as New Zealand went into lock down. And so far, it seems to be working. With the case numbers dropping the Prime Minister said, “You made the decision together, and you have made a difference. You have saved lives”.

Speculation is a way of life currently. Will we come out of lockdown early? Will I have a job in a week’s time? And to look beyond the coming months, will this pandemic change New Zealanders’ relationship with politics and future governments?

Will we see a shift in New Zealand, a move away from ‘society knows what’s best for itself’ to more paternalistic style governing? Does the current situation mean that New Zealanders will be more accepting of government taking advice from experts on a whole raft of issues, rather than poll-based populism, or who shouts the loudest?

While we can be proud in the way, to borrow a phrase from our politicians, we are waging war against this current silent killer, we can have no pride in the fact that New Zealand has some of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world.

Like many developed countries, our physical environment, the food we can afford and have access to, and how we eat are all reasons why we see and hear obesity experts talk of the scale of the issue – the economic burden, reduced quality of life and life expectancy for many.

Childhood obesity has not been a priority for our current Government. But will this or future governments take learnings from this year and demonstrate a greater appetite to restrict personal freedoms if it believes it positively impacts the collective or societal good of reducing obesity rates?

Could we see tough regulations on advertising and marketing of foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar; subsidies and taxes on foods; a complete reorientation of New Zealand’s food system?

My view has always been, that Government should lead on the issue of childhood obesity, but that everyone must have a seat at the table to have any chance of success. Public Health, the food industry, economists, town planners, local politicians, Iwi, transport agencies, the list goes on.

It will take collective resolve, comprehensive and comprehensible communications, and bucket loads of empathy, just like we have seen with COVID-19, to confront it.