Public health in paradise

How an Australian is helping Tonga respond to the pandemic

Australian volunteer Georgia Lack has played a key part in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Tonga. Here, the public health professional explains how she and her colleagues are working with software to track the vaccine data, and shares what she loves about life in Tonga. 

My role is based at Vaiola hospital in Nuku’alofa, where I work closely with the public health and IT teams as well as my Australian partner organisation, Beyond Essential Systems 

I first volunteered as a health information systems support officer in Tonga with the Ministry of Health from August 2019 to March 2020, and I returned for a six-month assignment in January this year to support the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.  

I am working as part of the IT and data team - working with software called mSupply to track both patients and stock. This will allow for the Tongan Ministry of Health to see who has received the vaccine, which dose they are up to, as well as track each day how much stock is left.  

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Georgia and colleagues at the Tongan Ministry of Health during the vaccine rollout. Back row left to right: Mafi Kovi Fifita, Tainali Ma'asi, Lepeka Folau, Georgia Lack and Siaosi Fifita. Front row left to right: Ilaisaane Fakatoumafi, Linda Tutone and Fatafehi Palu. Supplied: Georgia Lack
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Georgia Lack at the Vaiola Hospital, Tonga. Supplied: Georgia Lack

The data is allowing for real time planning and decision making of the vaccine rollout as well as providing critical information in the future, including digital vaccine histories for individual patients.  

Both at the hospital and onsite, staff are able to see the dashboard data rolling in from the field, allowing them to make decisions such as which teams need more resources and adjusting plans for the following days. 

The vaccine rollout has been keeping us all very busy! Preparing for the vaccine included jobs from system design and data cleaning, and now we can see it all coming together. Tonga received its first doses of the vaccine in early April. 

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Georgia (left) with her colleague Sosefo Tai during the vaccine rollout. Supplied: Georgia Lack
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After a morning swim in Tonga. Supplied: Georgia Lack

Tonga has a population of about 105,000 people spread across five island groups, which is one complication when it comes to rolling out a vaccine. Similar to many other countries, the rollout began with priority groups including frontline workers and vulnerable people.  

When the first people received their jab on 15 April, it was really exciting for the teams at the Ministry of Health who had spent long hours meticulously planning to make sure the rollout was as smooth as possible.  

One of the biggest challenges, which is also part of why I love this role, is the constant changes that come with trying to roll out a vaccine.

— Georgia Lack

As I’m sure many people working in the health care industry have been feeling, COVID-19 has definitely kept us on our toes. Working with the incredible team in Tonga has made these obstacles far easier to overcome.

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Georgia (left) and her colleague Nancy Tupou at the Ministry of Health, Tonga. Supplied: Georgia Lack
Health workers at a training session run by Georgia and her colleagues at the Ministry of Health. Photo: Georgia Lack
Health workers at a training session run by Georgia and her colleagues at the Ministry of Health. Photo: Georgia Lack

I’ve always loved the problem-solving aspect of my job and being able to leverage technology to improve health outcomes. Put those two together and I found the perfect match in my role in Tonga.  

My background is in public health and before starting work in Tonga in 2019 I was working with Royal Far West, an organisation that provides health care to rural and remote children in Australia.

I worked in their telehealth team which used technology to be able to increase access to healthcare to children. I think this is where I became interested in how technology can be used in health care and the untapped resource that it still is.

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Georgia with colleagues Siosaia Palavi and Limisesi Kaivelata at the beach in Tonga. Photo: Georgia Lack
Georgia's colleagues Evilini Tai and Afu Tei at the Ministry of Health during the vaccine rollout. Supplied: Georgia Lack

My colleagues here in Tonga are incredible and without a doubt I’ve learnt so many valuable skills from them.

Every day I admire the importance placed on teamwork and getting things done together.

— Georgia Lack

Building good relationships is such an important part of life in Tonga and that’s something I really value from the team I work with.  

One thing that draws me to Tonga is the community: I love that on the weekend if you make a quick trip to the shops you are bound to run into someone you may know. 

However as much as I love going into town, one of my compulsory weekend activities is to get in the ocean and usually say something along the lines of ‘I can’t believe I get to live here’.

Georgia's volunteer role is part of Australia's Health Security Corps, under the Australian Government's Indo-Pacific Centre for Health SecurityIt is just one element of the Centre’s work which includes supporting mSupply software development and end-to-end support to the vaccine roll-out in our region.