A Call to Superheroes – the fight against P

Every superhero, despite their super powers have a weakness.  For Flash it’s running too fast, for Wonder women it’s having her bracelets tied together by a man.  For Superman its kryptonite. 

These weaknesses are often found in the very thing(s) that make them strong. So how do we counter weaknesses – by knowing them, so we don’t fight blind. 

Despite the weaknesses of superheroes, we’re drawn to our Aqua-men, our Wolverines, our Storms and our Rogues because within each character is a relatable human trait and vulnerability that reminds us that as people, when we’re required to rise for those we love or the causes we believe in – more often than not, we do. Like Maya Angelou, even when we’re knocked down “but still we rise,” we become heroes within our households, our communities and beyond state borders who fight for what we know is right.

2019, I reflect on a manufactured “kryptonite” scattered across the Pacific.  It’s sold to our mothers and fathers, they line the strings pulled by puppeteers to control our brothers and sisters, they’re even found in western hospital wards, where practitioners attempt to wean its devastation off our newborn sons and daughters. It rips the heart of family and burns through the S on Superman’s chest – its name = P (methamphetamine).   

The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 estimated the social cost of drug-related harms and intervention in 2014/15 at $1.8 billion. That includes harms to health, to family and friends and to the wider community. But how do you measure the cognitive, social, and psychological burden carried by those directly affected or associated with addiction. And how do we advocate for change when figures lack context?

So, here’s some context through the eyes of a ta’ahine Tonga…

Seven years ago, I was part of a team that tested a screening tool for substance abuse (among Pacific) in Auckland New Zealand.  We took narratives from the Pacific drugs and alcohol workforce and from Pacific “clients” most of which did not access help voluntarily but told to go through a drugs and alcohol programme to avoid jail time.

Seven years ago, I heard the frustration echoed by Pacific clinicians caused by a tick box system, who “knew” investment needed to be had in “time” – time to establish va, time to access sufficient rehabilitation and support for client and family, time to ensure that the same people who walked out wouldn’t be dragged back in three months down the line.

Seven years ago, one informant noted that for migrants, often access to substances started back in our home islands, yet the lack of investment into services back home has meant that keeping tabs on the prevalence of addiction and the manifestation onto harder drugs has been like trying to find a needle in a haystack. 


Though trained in western classrooms with western tools, our Pacific clinicians are not blank canvases and when serving our people, indigenous insight can assist.  With the investment being poured into drugs and addiction services by this new government & the high rates of substance abuse among ethnic migrants who are less likely to utilise services – will we move beyond a tick box system? Will we use qualitative narratives to shape change and not just focus on quantitative counts?

Seven years on, what has been done?  In an article released on the 30 June 2019 titled “NZ’s cocaine and meth habit takes toll on Pacific Islands” managing director of Stragika Group Asia Pacific Jose Sousa-Santos said – “We are focusing on stopping the drugs coming through the Pacific, but we aren’t focusing on the damage being done in the Pacific through drug addiction.”

It’s been seven years since I sat in a room with Tongan mothers, desperate to kick their addiction to P, pleading for help so that they could be reunited with their children.  Their pleas still haunt me today. Like each of the ministries represented in this country, it is not in good practice to work in silos, because “issues” cut across. In the same sense, while we tackle the drug issues in Aotearoa we cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in the Pacific on route Aotearoa and Australia.

I tried finding regional Pacific statistics on the use and distribution of illicit drugs in the Pacific and came up blank.  While we work on building quantitative data, this is what I know anecdotally about my island kingdom.  There are children running drugs, adolescents stealing to feed their addictions. A generation above who are maybe too scared to say anything. 

My heart aches for my island kingdom, among others scattered across the Pacific, where we know the distribution of P is a growing problem, yet “sustainable” investment into combating substance abuse is still minimal.  I ask myself – seven years from now:

  • How are our maternal wards in the Pacific going to serve addicted mothers who will deliver addicted babies?
  •  What are we doing in terms of prevention to educate and build literacy around the harmful effects of drugs?
  • Will our justice system(s) be prepared for an increase in violence and theft as a direct or indirect effect of substance abuse? Will our jails also be ready?
  • Where is the investment to drugs and alcohol services AND mental health services to help those who are already addicted?
  • What has happened to the voices of those that once upon a time held us accountable?

If it takes a village to raise a child, it will also take a village to fight P. So, here’s a plea for us all, to remain vocal, “you can’t fight what you don’t know.”  To hold our national leaders accountable through advocacy and to work across prevention, intervention and postvention.  Koe uho ia ‘o e ta e lango kei mama’o.  The call for heroes begins today.


  1. Tevita Katoa


    Taking minor steps forward will slowly bring the target destination closer.

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