Dr. Colin Tukuitoga Talks COVID, the Impact on Health, Education, and Festivals

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“Profound”, is how a leading Pacific health expert would describe the past year dominated by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Dr. Colin Tukuitoga says it has been an unprecedented time and one we have not seen on this scale and impact in almost 100 years. “New Zealand has done well compared to other countries, I think we’ve been able to enjoy things that simply haven’t been possible elsewhere in the world,” he says. While New Zealand has done exceptionally well dealing with the pandemic, he says we are not out of the woods just yet.

Of Niuean decent, the Associate Dean for the Pacific programme at the Medical School of Auckland University and Associate Professor of Public Health, reflects back on the past year and the impact it has, and continues to have, across the globe.

Closer to home he says there have been some positives despite the pandemic. “The good news first is I think that most of our Pacific neighbour’s in the islands have managed to keep COVID out of their community with the exception of a few like Fiji who have had a few cases, but they’ve been able to contain it.  I think overall the impact in the islands, they’ve been fortunate in being able to keep the pandemic out.” He says the challenge remains for Pacific nations and New Zealand though, with the pandemic affecting people’s livelihoods, jobs, travel, and medical treatment. Particularly for Maori and Pacific peoples.

Tertiary students are no exception. Dr. Tukuitoga says it has been difficult for Students, and the University has tried to accommodate the changes. He says he is aware of the challenges students have faced. While lectures have been moved online, some Pacific students don’t have access to the necessary devices and connections in order to carry out their online studies. “For some students they have deferred their studies in order to help support their families during the pandemic. It was mainly an issue last year, and the University alongside  community groups and parents tried to find ways of assisting the students. I would hope and expect that it shouldn’t be an ongoing issue.”

Despite this, the Associate Professor says students have shown resilience with support mechanisms put in place to help keep the students motivated with their studies. “For us at the medical school the Maori and Pacific Admissions team (MAPAS)  have advisors and a support team working with the students to keep them motivated. I imagine it’s hard with the changes but that’s the reality with which we find ourselves and its important to try and do the best we can to contain the pandemic,” he adds.

Dealing with other health issues has been another focus for Dr. Tukuitoga and admits issues like obesity and diabetes can fall into the background because of the response to the pandemic.

“We, doctors, nurses, Pacific health providers have continued to try and maintain the focus on those other [health] challenges that we have, but inevitably, as I say, the focus will be on the pandemic.” Dr. Colin Tukuitoga

Social distancing continues to be a key message for the government during the alert levels. With the Auckland Pasifika Festival set to take place this month, Dr. Tukuitoga says the organisers need to forgo the event. He acknowledges while this might not be a popular position to take, he says it’s the right thing to do given the situation we are in.

I’ve been on Radio saying that I think the festival should be cancelled. I know this will be a disappointment particularly because we haven’t had Pasifika for the last two years, but given the uncertainty and the risks involved , my own view is given the fact that the vaccination programme roll out is not yet well established, I think the prudent thing to do is to cancel Pasifika.Dr. Colin Tukuitoga

Meanwhile the government has begun to rollout the vaccination programme. Dr. Tukuitoga says this is an important step towards dealing with this pandemic. He hopes the Pacific community will accept the vaccine when it’s offered.

You’re not only protecting yourself and your family, but its a gesture to the rest of our country and something really really important that is on offer to protect ourselves. There have been more than 200 million doses of the vaccine used around the world and so far we know the vaccines to be safe and to be effective.Dr. Colin Tukuitoga