Supporting Climate Change and Public Health Leaders in the Indo-Pacific
Climate change and its negative impacts on public health are undoubtedly one of the greatest threats facing the world in the 21st century. In May 2022, 59 ExchangeAlumni from 23 countries in the Indo-Pacific and the United States gathered in Bangkok, Thailand for an Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (TIES) on “Public Health and Climate Crisis in the Indo-Pacific.” From scientists to medical doctors and educators to grassroots organizers, this exemplary group of professionals learned, shared, and collaborated on effective community strategies focused on mitigating climate and public health crises in their countries.
With a jam-packed schedule, the first day began with welcome remarks from the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, Michael Heath. Following this warm welcome, participants engaged with an expert panel on the “U.S. Government’s Policy and Engagement on Public Health and Climate Change in the Indo-Pacific.” ExchangeAlumni peppered the panel with many inquisitive remarks and questions as they tried to gain a better understanding of the impact and effectiveness of the of the U.S. government’s existing initiatives to address climate and public health crises in the Indo-Pacific region.
Following these discussions, Alumni TIES participants showcased their research, community initiatives, and organizations at the “Beyond Borders: Community Engagement Showcase.” The showcase rooms echoed with excited voices as the participants formed new connections and partnerships. The day did not end there, as participants were able to continue conversations in their regional breakout sessions. Across the four regions — Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, and the United States — participants took part in activities and conversations to analyze and reflect on specific public health and climate change challenges affecting their regional communities.
The following seminar day, expert ExchangeAlumni led the first participant panel on “Strengthening Health Resilience to Climate Change.” They discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed regional vulnerabilities in mitigating public health crises and magnified the effects of natural disasters on public health. During this discussion, presenters described their experiences with disaster risk reduction and shared community development and sustainable initiatives for risk-informed policy planning. Throughout the seminar week, the group spent their time learning from one another through participant panels, learning labs, and small group discussions that covered a wide range of topics. These included data-driven climate change mitigation strategies and risk modelling, community stakeholder engagement, the impact of climate change and public health on underserved and minority communities, agricultural advocacy and strategy through journalism, the mobilization of youth in climate activism, and natural resource management and restoration.
Each Alumni TIES seminar focuses on centering participants as experts and seminar leaders, but this seminar also gave the cohort an opportunity to connect with local organizations. During the seminar, ExchangeAlumni met with two local Bangkok organizations, Health Intervention and Technology Assessment Program (HITAP) and the Regional Innovation Hub, focusing on their Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) project. HITAP is a semi-autonomous research unit under Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, which in 2007 was established as a nonprofit organization to address a wide range of health technologies and programs and disease prevention to inform policy decisions in Thailand. Their experts introduced participants to their work in Thailand and guided participants through an interactive case study activity on how to perform an evidence-based decision for resource allocation for healthcare services. WE4F is a joint international initiative to increase food production, income, and sustainable solutions for the most vulnerable community groups. Participants engaged with the visiting expert to discuss the successes and challenges of the project, fostering ideas for similar projects to be potentially replicated in the participants’ own communities.
ExchangeAlumni continued their networking during an immersive cultural activity designed to introduce them to the rich history and culture of Bangkok. The group’s tour of Wat Pho introduced them to the history of Buddhism in Thailand, the monarchy, and Thai architecture. Afterwards, participants embarked on a canal tour, exploring the city’s waterways and seeing firsthand how rising water levels due to climate change are impacting the city’s residents. Concluding the tour, the group enjoyed a delicious dinner together on a former rice barge, with the Bangkok skyline and setting sun as a backdrop.
Alumni TIES participants are eligible to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. In Bangkok, participants started to plan the goals, structure, and direction of their own community initiatives. Participants expressed enthusiasm about the small grants program and are looking forward to working on community engagement projects to promote sustainable responses to the climate change and public health crises across the Indo-Pacific and the United States. Potential project ideas were showcased during a pitch competition, some of which included training citizen scientists to monitor and report bat movements for possible disease threats, assessing risk for heart disease and accessing readily available healthcare through a mobile app, and access emergency care, and implementing a game to engage youth in climate change awareness and brainstorm sustainable solutions.
Closing out a busy and eventful week, the Alumni TIES cohort attended a Closing Reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Bangkok. As the participants, local alumni, and embassy officials arrived, the room quickly filled with the sounds of music and laughter. After an intense seminar, participants were able to enjoy one another’s company and solidify the connections that were made throughout the week. As the seminar concluded, it was evident that latest Alumni TIES cohort were firmly connected through the development of formative, life-long personal and professional relationships that would endure as they returned home to continue their ongoing efforts to promote sustainable, equitable action to address the global climate and public health crises.
The Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning and State’s Office of Alumni Affairs, in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).