Sat | Apr 17, 2021

The pandemic’s silver lining - Health sector getting much-needed investment as COVID-19 delivers critical lessons

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2021 | 12:22 AMRomario Scott - Sunday Gleaner Writer
Dr Paul Aiken (left), CEO of Mona Tech Engineering Services Ltd, and engineer Dontae Rodney working on repairing ventilators for the University Hospital of the West Indies at the Faculty of Engineering at The University of the West Indies, Mona, on Monday, April 20, 2020.
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Former Nurses Association of Jamaica President Janet Coore Farr in discussion with Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.
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A year under the weight of the pandemic brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Jamaica creaking public health system is under the microscope as mounting cases of COVID-19 threaten to overwhelm the system, which has been starved of significant investments for decades.

The extent of the of the ballooning crisis is evident in last Friday’s statistics published by the Ministry of Health & Wellness with the island recording the most COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period.

The 527 new cases pushed the country’s tally to 25,303 with 10,469 being active.

Despite the daily staggering numbers being published and healthcare workers on edge, fearing being burnt out because of the impossible demands, leaders in the health sector believe that COVID-19 has brought with it lessons which can be worthwhile in improving the public health system.

In addition, they say, the health system is getting the attention it has badly needed, albeit at a time when there are competing interests and money for capital expenditure has dried up.

At the onset of the local outbreak, for example, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton said that there were roughly 25 to 30 ventilators in the public health system. By September, the number had climbed to 118.

Former president of the Medical Association of Jamaica, Dr Myrton Smith, told The Sunday Gleaner that the pandemic exposed structural weakness in the public health system.

“Certainly, one of the things we have learnt is that our level of preparedness for events like these has been found wanting. I think it really unveiled some of the inadequacies we have built in our current healthcare system both here in Jamaican and all over the rest of the world.

“Our hope is that coming out of this, we would put in place several measures to ensure that we have a template to deal with something like this should this every happen again, which, based on the history of the world, we can certainly expect that it will happen again,” Smith said.

He said one of the positives coming out of the COVID-19 experience is that there is now an unmistakable understanding that there is a need to improve the protocols for isolation and quarantine as well as the need to need to train people to manage a pandemic.

PUBLIC HEALTH SECTOR ABANDONED

Former Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ) President Carmen Johnson agreed, arguing that the tremendous pressure healthcare workers were now facing was due to the public health sector being “abandoned”.

“And so, what COVID-19 has come to say is that we must seek to invest in health, and we must see health as a part of every industry and every ministry. COVID-19 has no respect for anybody, no matter how rich, no matter how poor, no matter how big, and industry – it closes down countries.

“So, where health is not being taken care of, when it breaks down it, it simply means that it affects the economy in its entirety,” Johnson argued as she called for health facilities to be upgraded to meet future challenges.

The senior nurse said that coming out of the experience with COVID-19, it was imperative to identify a basic package of healthcare for the populace and invest money to support it.

“We must invest in health. We must invest in our healthcare providers. You find out that because we have not sought to retain our healthcare providers, they leave with their knowledge and their skills, so one year into it when we thought we would be getting better, it is getting worse and our employees are burning out,” Johnson told The Sunday Gleaner yesterday.

Johnson further reasoned that in addition to exposing the weaknesses in the healthcare system, COVID-19 has forced Jamaicans to go back to basic personal hygiene.

“We must seek to attend to the simple things that cost small amount of money but have a big impact,” Johnson stressed, pointing to handwashing and sanitising as proven measures which can reduce or eliminate the spread of certain viruses, including the coronavirus, but over the years have not been religiously practised.

Another NAJ past President Janet Coore Farr said the COVID-19 also noted the silver lining in the pandemic, but questioned whether the lessons will be learnt.

“It is something that we could understand and learn from, but knowing us, I don’t know if we [are] going to learn from it. We might just go back and doing the same thing. Because what we are doing now is what we should have been doing all along in health. If we were practising infection control, this wouldn’t happen. So you call it a blessing in disguise, but I don’t know if we have learnt from it,” Coore Farr contended.

Still, the fight rages.

Ring infection numbers have driven up hospital admissions with some facilities such as the Cornwall Regional Hospital forced to convert other sections of the hospital into COVID-19 bed spaces as cases overwhelm western Jamaica’s largest public health facility.

As as hospitalisation increases, so, too, does the grim toll of the virus, which has claimed 446 lives in the island up to Friday, according to the health ministry. Another 54 deaths are under investigation while 89 have been ruled coincidental.

Globally, the virus has infected 116 million people and claimed 2.6 million lives.

Hopes for an end to the pandemic largely rest on a global vaccination drive. Jamaica is set to receive its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines tomorrow to kick off efforts to inoculate two million citizens within the next 12 months.

romario.scott@gleanerjm.com