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  • By Gaafar Uherbelau

When coming first means we lose

Auckland, NZ — Being at the top of the list when it comes to competitions, rankings, etc. is always a good thing, right? Being ranked in the top five or ten is commendable and is what we should constantly aim to achieve, right? Um… hold up. Not so fast.

According to 2014 stats from the World Health Organization (WHO), Palau was ranked the fourth most obese and third most overweight country the in the world. Let me restate that last part — in the world. According to these numbers, almost half (45 percent) of adults in Palau are obese and a shocking 80 percent are overweight. Now you tell me – how the hell can we be proud of something like this? SMH.

Obviously, like other Micronesians and Pacific islanders, we Palauans have tremendous pride in our culture, our beautiful islands and in our own abilities. Take sports, for example. When it’s peacetime in our region (during the three years between the Micro and Pacific Games), we are BFFs with our brethren from Guam, FSM, Saipan, and the rest of Pasifika. But when war breaks out on the diamond, on the court, on the field, and on/in the water, we can never be more divided, more gung-ho and patriotic, and it’s only due to our fiercely competitive nature and the spirit of friendly rivalry.

So the first question I pose is why can’t we have the same intense pride, passion and competitive spirit when it comes to our health? Why can’t we instigate a win-win tournament, perhaps every four years to see who can become the healthiest in the region? Considering the fact that we top practically every list that’s bad in terms of health, doesn’t it make sense for us to up our game and start competing for more significant rewards like longer and healthier lives instead of just ribbons and medals?

And then there’s our pride in the environment. We’ve made headlines all over the world with our efforts in trying to sustain our marine resources and our natural environment. We’ve gained numerous accolades for applying our traditional philosophies in conservation and we’re considered global leaders in environmental sustainability. But what about us, the people? Where are our Human Protected Areas, our National People Sanctuaries?

Don’t get me wrong, all our efforts and achievements in caring for and doing our part for the environment is awesome and commendable. But what I am saying is that it doesn’t make sense for us to focus all of our efforts in trying to conserve fish for our children’s children and yet not consider how their health outcomes will be. What’s the point of having an abundance of fish in the future if posterity can’t even catch it because they’re too obese to dive? What’s the point of preserving the pristine beauty of our islands only to have it unseen and unappreciated because more and more people are blinded and plagued by diabetes and other chronic diseases?

In the latest Palau budget, we see that total appropriations for the promotion of sports and environmental protection this year comes in at approximately $3.3 million. In contrast, the money we reserve for the protection and promotion of health is just under $1.9 million (some of which, BTW, is actually going toward buying a new referral house). So fiscally, we can clearly see that adjustments have to be made if we want to live longer, healthier lives. We have to make that conscious decision to re-shift our focus and realign our priorities towards our own health. Not diseases, but health.

So yes, let’s continue to aim for gold in all that we do including in sports and in our environmental efforts; but let us also admit and acknowledge right now that it is time that we also boost our individual, national, and regional efforts to reclaim our health. Let us use our pride as our inspiration, just like in sports and in conservation, but also be wary that too much pride can make us complacent and oblivious to the truth. Yes, being first on a list of really bad things is hard to accept, but sometimes we have to swallow our pride in order to realize its true essence and our own potential.

Gaafar Uherbelau is a social marketer for the Palau Ministry of Health and is currently studying Social Sciences for Public Health at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Send feedback to

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