CARIBBEAN VIEW: Kamla is right: Joint Caribbean action vital to ensure no health crisis

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, is right to have called for a special meeting of leaders of the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM) “to take pre-emptive measures to ensure the safety, health and well-being of millions of citizens of the Caribbean region” in relation to the Chikungunya and Ebola diseases.

Both her call and any subsequent meeting would be consistent with the primary objective of the creation of CARICOM -– joint action by its member governments to safeguard the interests of their states individually and collectively.

Given the potential gravity of this problem and the vulnerability of all countries in the region if either of the two diseases becomes chronic, CARICOM countries might usefully consider inviting Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to attend the proposed Summit meeting.   Should Heads of Government agree to a plan of action, subsequent meetings of Health Ministers should include the French, Dutch and British territories in the Caribbean.  Chikungunya has not recognised national boundaries as it hops around the region; neither will Ebola should it reach the area.

While Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s main concern is, naturally, about the dangerous effects of Ebola and Chikungunya on Caribbean residents, the incidents of these diseases within the region can also gravely affect tourism which is vital to the economies of the majority of Caribbean states.   Already Canada has issued a travel advisory to its people visiting the Caribbean to take precautions against Chikungunya.   If the incidents increase and become widespread, Canada and other countries, such as the United States and Britain, would undoubtedly warn their people against travelling to the Caribbean except on urgent business.  The loss of tourism earnings on already ailing economies would be hugely damaging.

Fortunately, in relation to Chikungunya, while the number of cases has increased, the disease has not reached worrying proportions.  There is, however, continuing need for public education about the measures required to prevent its spread and to manage it once it is contracted.  Further, governments have to strengthen the machinery within their countries to eradicate, as far as they can, mosquitoes that are the carriers of Chikungunya.  Measures should also be established at border entries to ensure, as far as possible, that persons entering Caribbean countries -– even from within the region – are not already infected.  This latter step would be more effectively and productively implemented by all Caribbean countries, acting together, on an agreed plan.

The current Ebola virus disease is a problem of greater magnitude.   The latest outbreak of Ebola in West Africa - the worst ever -- has already killed more than 1,229 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria and another 2,240 people are infected. Experts warn it is not yet under control.  Should the disease reach the Caribbean, considerable stress will be put on the already strained medical resources of countries in the region, particularly as quarantining sufferers for treatment and to stop contagion, would become a very costly affair.

But quarantining victims at what could amount to millions of dollars for the entire region would not be the only cost or the smallest.  The experience in Africa, thus far, shows that costs to affected economies could exceed medical bills. The extent of the damage will depend on how far the disease spreads and how long the outbreak lasts. Recently, the World Bank revised downwards its economic-growth estimate for Guinea and Liberia. The Economist has reported that “in the Ebola-afflicted parts of West Africa where health systems have been overwhelmed, some foreign companies are already pulling out workers”.   Even Chinese companies - regarded as more tolerant of difficulties in developing countries - have begun to scale-down activities. Share prices of companies, affected by the Ebola crisis, have also fallen.   As for tourism, British Airways, Emirates and two African airlines have already halted flights to some affected countries.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is so concerned about the effect of Ebola being spread globally that, on August 8, it declared the outbreak of the disease in West Africa a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.   Further, to try to contain the spread of the disease and provide a coordinated international response for travel and tourism, the heads of WHO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Tourism Organization, Airports Council International, International Air Transport Association and the World Travel and Tourism Council activated a Travel and Transport Task Force to monitor the situation and provide information.

The action of the international bodies is good news and perfectly right.  But, it is not enough -– regional and national actions are also imperative.  The WHO has called on countries not affected by Ebola to strengthen capacity to detect and immediately contain new cases.  That, in part, has motivated the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister to call for a meeting of CARICOM leaders.  

More good news is that the WHO has stated publicly that “the risk of transmission of the Ebola virus disease during air travel is low. Unlike infections such as influenza or tuberculosis, Ebola is not spread by breathing air from an infected person. Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animals, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller.”    

However, this is no cause for complacency as events in West Africa demonstrate.  The economic costs of the disease are high and so are the social costs in some areas where military forces have been unleashed on Ebola sufferers.  Reports state that “authorities in Liberia have struggled to treat and isolate the sick, in part because of widespread fear that treatment centres are places where people go to die. Many sick people have hidden in their homes, relatives have sometimes taken their loved ones away from health centres, and mobs have occasionally attacked health workers”. 

The Caribbean wants none of that.  That is why even though no case of Ebola has been recorded in the region, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is right: “Caribbean governments must not wait for a crisis to act”. 

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Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean Diplomat. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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