Bites in Tonga: Media, Development, and Zika – Lora Vaioleti

On Feb 4, 2016, the Tongan government declared it was facing a Zika virus epidemic. At that time, Tonga had two confirmed cases and 265 suspected cases of the Zika virus. Later, three cases were also discovered in New Zealand of people recently returned from Tonga. According to the latest information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), the practice of enhanced precautions is necessary if traveling to Tonga (or Samoa and French Polynesia) to minimize mosquito contact. However, the WHO has yet to recommend that states should issue travel and trade restrictions on Zika-active countries. The New Zealand media’s role in potentially compounding the developmental challenge of the Zika virus in Tonga is a matter of concern.

New Zealand Media Reporting

Even prior to the Tongan government’s declaration of an epidemic, New Zealand media was already suggesting that a travel advisory for Tonga. Without directly stating causal links, another report included a lone sentence on the fact that Guillan-Barré Syndrome can cause paralysis. On February 7, New Zealand media published a further report entitled ‘Teenager feared to have Zika virus after Tonga holiday’. The teen was reported to have ‘rushed home’ from Tonga and had a ‘harrowing wait’ for diagnosis on her return to New Zealand. From February 8 onwards, new reports from New Zealand media promoted headlines like ‘In Tonga, Zika cases skyrocket’ and ‘Zika epidemic declared in Tonga – travel advisory in place’.

In my opinion, sensationalized media sound-bites flowing from relatively larger nations like New Zealand could well be the ‘bites’ of highest impact for Pacific nations like Tonga. While the long-term health impacts continue to be the focus of research, Zika’s short-term symptoms of fever and headache tend to pass in 4 – 7 days. Moreover, most recent updates from the WHO and CDCP reiterated that causal links between the Zika virus and Guillan-Barré Syndrome, and between maternal infection and infant microcephaly, remain circumstantial. Admittedly, there is a growing body of clinical and epidemiological data points towards a causal role for Zika virus. Ongoing research into causal links throws the integrity of the New Zealand media into question with a report released February 4th stating that the Zika virus ‘had been linked’ to microcephaly in infants.

Tongan Development

Sensationalized media publications, often not reflective of evidence, need to be considered through a developmental lens. Tonga’s capacity to source finance for investment in internal infrastructure including health and disease response is limited. As a geographically isolated Pacific nation limited practically in its access to global markets for trade, it relies heavily on tourism for employment, direct investment and exports. In 2014, travel and tourism contributed a total of TOP 143.9m to national GDP, and directly supported approximately 2000 jobs – over 6 percent of total employment. Predictions by the World Travel and Tourism Council – prior to the Zika virus epidemic – was that tourism contributions to Tonga’s GDP will increase by nearly 6 percent annually between 2015 and 2025. In addition, visitor exports generated nearly 60 percent of the country’s total exports in 2014. Recent government efforts have been made in establishment of the Tonga Tourism Authority (TTA) and documentation of local history as the country strives to differentiate its tourism offerings from other South Pacific destinations based on culture and heritage.

The developmental position of Pacific nations like Tonga are both precarious and necessarily dependent. In the Pacific’s reliance on international perceptions for its growing tourism industry, there must be checks and balances on regional media reporting of events like the Zika epidemic. Pacific nations like Tonga lack the marketing resources and brand strength that New Zealand enjoys and fiercely protects for its own multi-billion dollar tourism industry. Enlightened consideration of regional development must include policies for the reasonable protection of- and due respect for our Pacific neighbors’ emerging brand and image for which it so heavily relies. As the challenge of the Zika virus plays out, Tonga will continue to need additional resources to manage the internal threat. As a key developmental partner, it is important that New Zealand’s media outlets not represent an additional external threat to Tonga’s capacity to overcome this public health epidemic.

Author: Lora Vaioleti is a professional consultant on climate change and development.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: James Gathany via Flickr CC

Note: Edits made to original on 3/2/16

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