The Asia-Pacific region faces a range of public health challenges. The 4.3 billion people (60% of global population) who call the region home are at risk from tobacco use, air pollution, poor road safety and unhealthy diets, which contribute to millions of deaths each year. To address these challenges, Vital Strategies develops and implements evidence-based programs in these critical areas in 12 countries from India to the Solomon Islands.
Siddhi Aryal, a public health leader who has worked extensively in Asia-Pacific countries, recently joined our team as regional director for the Asia-Pacific region where he will lead a team of more than 50 to unify, strengthen and expand Vital’s work. Siddhi has been doing health systems strengthening work for more than 18 years, with regional management and technical roles for international organizations including FHI360, the Malaria Consortium and Pact, and private firms such as QED Group.
We asked Siddhi about what he is most looking forward to about leading Vital’s work in the Asia-Pacific region, the change-makers that inspire him and his words of wisdom for aspiring public health professionals.
What brought you to the field of public health?
The three core traits of my personality are: interacting with people, wanting to see concrete results from things I do, and looking for meaning in the vocations that I pursue. Public health helped me combine these three traits, filling in gaps from an earlier career in international institutional equities.
I fondly remember my work with UNICEF in Nepal during the Maoist insurgency, on a radio infotainment program, “Chatting with my best friend.” The program was developed as part of a campaign to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS among youth, and it became wildly popular. We discussed life skills-based approaches to handling a range of issues such as: coping with loss of a loved one, dealing with suicidal thoughts, dealing with parents’ expectations, learning to say no, etc. This became a window to me for looking at issues that affected the youth of Nepal, a nation that had a raging insurgency, mass migration, a slumped economy, mostly absent government services and a general state of hopelessness. Even when there was no hope, we were able to create alliances and positive impetus for change. Every instance of success was only possible because the community was effectively engaged and felt ownership.
Much of the subsequent work I have done in the public health sector across Asia was built on this foundation. From setting up a vector control secretariat at the Malaria Consortium to providing support to strengthen disease surveillance systems at the ministries of health in Cambodia or Myanmar, no matter what forum I find myself in, I am driven forward by thinking of the communities whose lives are touched by our work. That is why I am thrilled to join the Vital Strategies family, where our programs run with the spirit of meaningful partnerships and care for the people they reach.
What are you most looking forward to about leading Vital’s work in the Asia-Pacific region?
Asia is a vast region with growing prosperity and economic promise. However, inequities persist even in the higher-income nations. As the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare, there is still a lot of work to be done so that people have access to quality health services. What excites me about the work we do at Vital Strategies in Asia is that we provide support to governments to make rapid progress against major public health challenges. Whether we are addressing the impact of urban air pollution or tobacco control, we build agile teams of experts, strategists and researchers—at times embedded within counterpart government agencies—to advance scalable, sustainable policies to ultimately save lives. This bridging of the gap between pressing public health needs and effective solutions is where I find meaning in what I do.
As regional director, I intend to continue Vital’s solid technical work, which is grounded in scientific evidence and best practice approaches, while growing our network of partners. I believe that forming strong working partnerships with governments, academic entities, technical agencies, program implementers and civil society groups will result in better coordination and more efficient delivery to advance the public health agenda.
What are some new projects or initiatives that Vital is implementing in the region?
As per our core vision of a world where everyone is protected by a strong public health system, we implement a number of key programs in the Asia region.
Air pollution is a huge issue in many cities in Asia. In 2017, air pollution caused approximately 1.3 million deaths in India and Indonesia alone. We work in both countries to promote clean household fuels, policy solutions and public awareness of the health impacts of air pollution. In September of this year, we announced the Jakarta Clean Air Partnership, which is a two-year initiative led by Vital Strategies, the Jakarta Capital City Government and Bloomberg Philanthropies, to tackle Jakarta’s air pollution problem.
We are also building strong partnerships to further tobacco control in the region, with a focus on smoke-free spaces to protect people, and especially children, from secondhand smoke. In Vietnam, we are working with the Vietnam Women’s Union on efforts to fight for smoke-free homes and public spaces. In China, we will be doing similar work in the coming year through partnerships with the China Family Planning Association and All China Women’s Federation.
Where do you live and what do you enjoy most about it?
I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal and have been fortunate to have had a chance to visit many countries and live in some amazing places during the course of my studies and professional work. My roots are in Kathmandu and that magical city will always be my favorite place to be. But living in Copenhagen and cycling to school with my son in the back carrier was amazing, as was jogging along Inya Lake in Yangon when I lived there. I just arrived in Singapore, and am looking forward to enjoying the diversity in people, food and activities, and the temperate climate.
Who or what inspires you?
In 2003, a friend gave me a copy of “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It opened my eyes to the amazing public health work of Dr. Paul Farmer and his team in Haiti, Peru and Russia. I was already working in health at that time, but that book encouraged me to pursue a professional degree in public health. Later, when I was involved in TB and HIV advocacy work alongside the Treatment Action Group in New York, I had a chance to work with South African activist Zackie Achmat whose activism, eloquence and commitment to fight on behalf of people living with HIV and AIDS and work to build more support for social justice organizations was exemplary. Similarly, Dr. Claudia Campbell, my Ph.D. advisor at Tulane University, inspired me a lot, with her never-ending energy and zeal in talking about health economics and ways to apply research to create more efficient and effective health systems.
What advice would you give to those interested in entering the public health field?
As we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, population level interventions are easier spoken about than implemented and the lines between individual and societal responsibility and accountability can be blurry. Public health is a field of lifelong learning and is always evolving, with many unanswered questions and unexplored novel approaches. As I reflect on my own public health journey, I have met many wonderful individuals all over the world, some of whom have become friends for life. I have gotten to see some of the most amazing places in the world, but also worked in some difficult emergencies. I would tell those who may be interested in studying public health and making a career out of this amazing discipline, that it gives a comprehensive view of health care, encompassing not only patients and society, but also population-level health and understanding the management of health systems. This gives as complete a view as possible in these times that are rapidly changing due to globalization and advances in health information technology.