‘You don’t fix your health system when you need it…’
Wise words from Dr John Nkengasong, Director of Africa Center for Disease Control (ACDC) said in a June 2, 2021 ‘HARDTalk’ interview with the BBC’s Sudanese-born presenter Zeinab Badawi about Africa’s experience with and response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
At the time, African nations – like The Caribbean — continued waiting in vain for delivery of vaccines promised under the United Nations’ COVAX distribution scheme.
Nkengasong spoke while Africa waited, its hospitals were not all in good conditions and many African Union (AU) member-states also suffered from rundown health facilities that were either neglected or inadequate, while in many others there were simply not enough.
He addressed many issues to show how continental Africa is left at the mercy of the multinational pharmaceutical corporations (BIG PHARMA) for vaccines while they hold on to patents and restrict the possibility of African states (like South Africa, Senegal and others) that have the capacity to produce.
But, always seeking the Caribbean connection on the global stage, my main takeaway from the broad interview was the point about ‘not fixing hospitals when you need them…’
Saint Lucia is a classic case in point, where 12 years after a fire destroyed St. Jude Hospital — and over a $100 Million dollars later — it’s still being fixed; and it took COVID-19 to force the opening of a brand-new national, internationally-funded hospital that had been kept closed for years.
And before that, another brand new psychiatric ‘wellness’ center remained mainly closed (or hardly open for designated uses), while the dying national hospital was kept alive in a coma and on a plug, several other medical facilities at community levels between various states of flux — under repair, being rebuilt or ‘retrofitted’, or simply awaiting attention.
And then came COVID…
Back in March 2020 (when the pandemic was declared), the country was told the local health system could only cater for 261 beds.
Thereafter, with St. Jude also still virtually burning alive in prolonged intensive care, everything was done to take Victoria off the plug and infuse new life through an upgrade to the COVID National Respiratory Center.
Fifteen months after the pandemic was declared, not a single patient had been shifted from the George Odlum Olympic Stadium to St. Jude, in its second phase of reconstruction after an almost-complete first phase was closed-down in 2016, followed by construction of another parallel new complex.
The jury is still out on whether the millions received for COVID assistance was used for the purposes outlined by donors and lenders, but public opinion is very loud today about the state of the nation’s hospitals and health facilities.
The jury is also still out on the wisdom of Government borrowing 13.5 million Euros (over US $16 million) from the European Investment Bank (EIB) through a 20-year repayment arrangement for ‘COVID-related expenses’ on the eve of General Elections, but the verdict is also very loud and wider than even the court of public opinion.
The EU-funded OKEU Hospital, Victoria, Dennery and Soufriere Hospitals, the Gros Islet Polyclinic, Health Centers and other health facilities and public outlets are understandably operating Under Lockdown, but all – bar none, except OKEU and the Millennium Heights Wellness Center—need various aspects of urgent repair or physical and equipment upgrades.
The health authorities admit that the X-Ray Unit at the George Odlum Stadium-cum-Hospital has been out of order since April while an ordered missing part is being awaited and arrangements are underway to fly a repair technician in from the Dominican Republic – and in the meantime, a private entity is being paid by government to provide X-Ray Services to the stadium-hospital.
Anyone else needing X-Ray services has to go to OKEU (where the overworked unit is not always available) or resort to private Castries facilities (like Tapion Hospital) or the many private labs between Castries and Rodney Bay.
Earlier this week (in Wednesday’s VOICE) I raised the issue of our readiness for the unwelcome so-called Delta Variant that, like the original COVID-19 and all subsequent variants, will penetrate all our front and back-door defenses and make easy landing at an unknown port of human entry.
The ‘Delta’ variant being 14-times more transmissible than all previous ones, BIG PHARMA unable to produce upgraded vaccines fast enough (still yet to launch their related vaccine response for the South African variant) and dozens of cases of the ‘Kent’ variant already officially traced here, it’s imperative that the national health service be appropriately fixed to meet this impending challenge.
The paced rate of infections led to three successive ‘season-related’ waves between 2020 and 2021, but with vaccinations under way the rate decreased considerably between 4,000 and 5,000; and the number of ‘active’ persons continues to decrease alongside increased vaccine hesitance.
But alongside the number of deaths, it’s still bad news for Saint Lucia, which continues to top the list of Eastern Caribbean nations with low COVID Exam marks.
That we continue to try to fix our hospitals when we need them most is in direct contrast to neighbouring Dominica, where the government immediately commissioned construction of a new $32 million (US $11.8 million) 62-bed community hospital immediately after the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
Funded by Citizenship By Investment (CBI) money, the brand-new hospital is now complete, within budget and ahead of time – and built by Rayneau’s, a Saint Lucian construction company.
With the CARICOM region’s eighth election under COVID due in Saint Lucia between July and October – if reading the political tea leaves in the old way still works in the New Norm – there’s no escaping the Saint Lucia Government’s handling of all aspects of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 will be an election campaign issue, with all its partisan pains and passions.
But from a Caribbean perspective, it’s quite clear that ACDC Chief, Dr John Nkengasong, was (and still is) quite right:
You just don’t fix a hospital when you need it most.
It just makes no sense…