Letters & Opinion

Nursing the Politics of Economics and Finance — African nurses to man Barbados hospitals and health services

Image of NRC Chairman Earl Bousquet
Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

GHANA’S President Nana Akufo Addo visited Barbados recently, bringing greetings and good tidings from the one country in Africa where millions of Africans were shipped to the Caribbean and The Americas into Slavery.

Following his visit, Barbados announced some 400 nurses from Ghana will be taking-up jobs in the island’s health service.

Unemployed Barbadian nurses asked questions and the government assured they will be assessed. But why would the government seek nurses from abroad if it could fill all available posts with locals?

One reason could be the cost.

The Barbados economy is in the dog house and Prime Minister Mia Mottley has so far had to play lots of cat-and-mouse with the nation’s finances to keep the island’s sinking economy afloat.

Sugar is no longer sweet, so PM Mottley has had to swallow some bitter pills at home while engaging in a serious song-and-dance with the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF), sticking as much she can to its solemn hymn sheet.

She’s cut jobs in the public service, reduced government expenditure, held the public service unions at bay and all but reduced the value of the Barbadian dollar at home — normal IMF guidelines — to trim the Bajan economy back into shape.

The hiring of Ghanaian nurses might very well be seen in the context of outsourcing local jobs at less cost.

PM Mottley will naturally have considered all the pros and cons and can be counted on to defend her decision. But there will also naturally be political and other related consequences that she will also defend in the usual ‘national interest’.

Meanwhile, some 400 Saint Lucian nurses specially trained in Cuba but left jobless in Saint Lucia after returning home must be following the Barbados situation closely.

At the turn of the century, while his government was planning construction of three new hospitals, then Prime Minister Kenny D. Anthony approached Cuba for assistance to train some 200 nurses to man them.

President Fidel Castro told PM Anthony he would do better: he said he’d build a new training school in Matanzas to train 400 Saint Lucian nurses and the extra 200 would be able to market and share their new skills in other Caribbean (OECS and CARICOM) states.

The 400 Saint Lucian nurses were trained by Cuba, all for free. But before they could return home to serve, fate would deal their ambitions an almost fatal blow: regime change occurred back home in 2006, bringing with it a gubernatorial change of mind about their fate.

With two new hospitals under construction on the Millennium Highway and St Jude Hospital reconstruction also under way and 400 qualified new and young nurses about to return home from Cuba, the new government suddenly decided the Cuban training was somehow insufficient for local nurses.

Their stay in Cuba was extended by another two years, at great cost to Cuba, which was giving all the training for free — and their parents too, who had to support them for another two years abroad.

Regime change in Saint Lucia also resulted in changes of plans for the new hospitals under construction: the new National Hospital was downsized, part of the new national psychiatric facility (built by the Chinese and opened by the Taiwanese) was rented for non-medical uses and plans for the new St Jude Hospital were scrapped.

The end results? The 400 Cuba-trained nurses returned home after a costly forced extension of their studies, but with no new hospitals to go to.

Where are they now? Some are in the local private health sector, a few got employment overseas, but all have simply had to find their own way to put their skills to work since returning home qualified and eager to work long years ago.

When I read the news about the Ghanaian nurses going to Barbados, I got that mixed feeling of knowing the President and Prime Minister meant well for their countries and also knowing the move itself would result in possible consequences neither would have wanted.

Bajan nurses who fail to pass the promised assessment will naturally feel they were sidelined ‘for foreigners’; and if the Ghanaians are paid less, the government will have problems with the unions.

I got that same feeling decades ago, when Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide paid an impromptu visit to Saint Lucia and then Foreign Affairs Minister George Odlum invited him to send Haitians to Saint Lucia to work in the island’s banana fields.

While that sounded good, I knew it would create problems, as the Haitians would be paid lower wages and there would eventually be several other negative backlashes.

I fear the same could cause the Barbados Prime Minister to scream ‘Mama Mia!’ if she doesn’t handle the situation regarding the Ghanaian nurses properly.

Such acts of Caribbean political solidarity can easily result in unintended national economic consequences that eventually defeat the intended purpose.

But the Barbados case also reveals the sad disconnect between the region’s governments and health ministries.

Barbados needs 400 trained nurses. Saint Lucia had that many trained who returned home, many still with high hopes dashed. There are also trained nurses in other CARICOM countries willing to land a job in Barbados and visit home at least once a year. So, why didn’t Barbados turn to CARICOM and invite 400 Caribbean nurses to apply to fill the positions?

It all boils down to the politics of finance and economics – and not only in the Caribbean.

Leaders of countries facing financial and economic meltdowns often face situations that force them to take decisions they know will rub their people wrongly, but which they feel will be right for the country’s economy and the government’s finances.

Barbados is just the latest case.

In the end, the government’s new nursing policy will test the capacity of Bajans to adjust and adapt — and to adopt the new attitudes required to coexist with 400 Africans crossing the same route of Slavery’s infamous ‘Middle Passage’, but this time of their own free will, as did the Indentured workers from India who came to the Caribbean after Abolition.

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