Justin Koonin

Meet Distinguished Fellow, Justin Koonin

Justin is a co-chair of the Steering Committee of UHC2030, the international multistakeholder partnership for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and is a member of multiple World Health Organization (WHO) expert panels. At a national level in Australia, Justin is president of the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON). He is Honorary Professorial Fellow at The George Institute and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of New South Wales, as well as a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Justin's training is in the field of pure mathematics, and he currently works as an investment analyst.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where did you grow up, what did you enjoy?

I was born in Cape Town during the later years of apartheid. Our apartment was by the sea, and looking out you could see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was in prison. My mother was a social worker in the townships working towards African empowerment; her professional career began during the turmoil of the Soweto riots in 1976. Eventually it became politically untenable for her to stay, so my family came to Australia when I was still very young. I was a very academic child. I loved learning – especially maths and science. I had a normal, comfortable childhood with access to fantastic educational opportunities. There was an awareness though, given my family history, that not everyone around the world – and in this country – had access to the same opportunities.

Your background is in mathematics – how did you become involved in health?

Soon after I started university, I had a serious chronic illness which meant I was unable to work or study for several years. That prompted much exploration both of Western medicine, and traditional methods from other cultures. Doctors did not always (indeed, often) have the answers. Eventually I recovered, and through the connections I had made during my own health journey, helped establish a charity building bridges between young people in Australia and my place of birth, South Africa. On our travels we were invited to work with an HIV/AIDS charity in KwaZulu-Natal, a province which at the time was witnessing astronomical rates of HIV transmission. That sparked my interest in HIV/AIDS as an issue, and given that HIV was also affecting communities close to me in Australia, I became involved over here as well.

You wear a number of hats in several sectors. What is happening in your world that is particularly exciting now?

I have always felt that the most interesting conversations, and possibilities for progress, lie at the intersections of diverse fields. I made a conscious decision not to become a specialist in any one particular area, but rather to expose myself to as many different schools of thought and experience as possible, and to try and bridge the gaps between them. Ultimately, we are one society, one world, and we need to make progress as a whole. And so, my training is in pure mathematics, my day job is in finance and investment, within Australia I work mostly on HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ health and rights, and internationally I am focused on broader issues of universal health coverage and health preparedness. I’m excited that the challenges the world has faced over the past few years have made it abundantly clear that continuing to operate in silos will not work. In particular, to achieve systemic change in global health we need to look beyond the health sector and build connections with those working on climate change, education, finance and so many other areas.

What is the biggest change you would like to see through your work?

Ultimately, I want to see governments commit – really commit – to building equitable and resilient health systems which will not only ensure we are better protected against future health emergencies, but will make good on the commitment to health as a fundamental human right. I am particularly passionate about the role of civil society and communities as agents for change. Often we are seen as vulnerable populations in need of “protection” – and there sometimes may be some truth in that. But we also have agency, knowledge, passion, and we are normally best placed to discover the solutions to the challenges we face. I want communities to be seen as equal partners by governments and other sectors. We are one society, and we need to work together.

What would you like your impact as a Distinguished Fellow to be?

Perhaps my presence here at The George Institute could encourage others to think a little outside the box around what their own contributions could be. I am conscious that I am here as someone who has never actually had a job in the health sector – and maybe it’s a good thing to have that variety. I’m also passionate about helping the next generation of advocates and researchers reach their potential. To the extent that I have had success in my own efforts, it is in large measure thanks to the mentoring and encouragement I have received from people with far more experience. I would like to return that favour in some way.

What do you do when you’re not working?

In order to juggle the hats I wear, I need to keep as healthy as possible. So I spend quite a lot of time exercising – running, swimming, yoga – as it clears my mind and keeps my body in the best shape it can be. I also love cooking – again, predictably healthy food. I’m a (very amateur) potter – I’ve found that a tremendous way to get out of my head and grounded in my body.