The wait was confusing and frustrating for many. They crowded around the triage centers at the public wharf, the Chinese club and Port Vila hospital.
One the first day alone, Chinese medical staff from the ship reportedly attended to 900 people. A public relations official stated that the preliminary estimate of the number of people seen during the week-long visit was nearly 5,000.
In a town numbering only slightly more than 40,000, that's an astonishing level of demand.
But the visit of the Peace Ark, as it's known, did in fact save lives. I was told by staff about one situation, coordinated with doctors at Vila Central Hospital, where they were able to save the life of a young mother who had experienced complications following the delivery of her child.
Had she only had local facilities available, her prognosis was negative, but aboard the PLA Navy ship, her chances of survival were near certain.
The Chinese I spoke with were impressed with the dedication and professionalism of senior medical staff in Vanuatu. Their concerns, however, were nothing new: Primitive facilities, under-staffing, a lack of state of the art equipment and services, and most importantly, a lack of capacity to provide longer-term treatment and prevention of non-communicable diseases and other inevitable aspects of living longer.
Per capita spending on health in Vanuatu differs so much from that of developed countries, they can't usefully be put on the same chart. Likewise, it's almost pointless to talk about health service delivery here in Vanuatu in the same terms as we would use in Sydney, for example. Health spending represents between 11% and 13% of annual budgeted spending, which is in line with most other countries, and although Vanuatu is in the lower rank among Pacific island countries where per capita spending is concerned, it's not out of scale with them.
As we see below, China's per capita spending is quite similar, but the nature and scale of their economy make resources like the state of the art Peace Ark possible. It's quite likely, though, that they understand the possibilities and the limitations of delivering health services in a place like Vanuatu better than many other donor partners, whose experience might leave them somewhat distanced from Vanuatu's.
But the story goes far deeper than just money.
Health has not been a national political priority for years, and it shows. Management issues abound. Staffing levels are low, with many remote nursing and aid stations remaining empty for much of the year. One Australian nurse on a voluntary secondment from a Queensland hospital, told me that nurse-to-bed ratios were four to six times lower in Port Vila than where she worked.
The issue of how to improve our health services —and how to build a functioning health system— in Vanuatu is complex and difficult. There is no silver bullet, no one thing that will magically fix the many problems that result in so much unnecessary suffering and loss.
Written by Dan McGarry for the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.
The Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP) is the leading independent think tank serving the Pacific islands community. We exist to stimulate and support informed policy debate in the Pacific.