Caribbean must consider ebola seriously

By David Jessop

LONDON, England – The first thing to be said about the ebola crisis is that the region should be very proud that among the first to fully understand the seriousness of the threat and respond was a Caribbean nation: Cuba.

It, almost alone in the world, recognized early, the extent of the potential crisis we all face if the epidemic is left unchecked.

As is now well known, Cuba has in place the largest medical team from any nation.

Its primary motivation is humanitarian and its response, which is a reflection of Cuba’s advanced free universal health care system and high level medical research, puts most of the developed world and advanced developing nations to shame.

The island’s former president, Fidel Castro, suggested that Cuba’s ‘army of white coats’ now going to Sierra Leone reflected Cuba’s deep commitment to Africa; he might have added that Cuba’s support in relation to ebola is a reflection of his nation’s unsung acts of humanitarian support such as the continuous care it has offered in Cuba for the children and parents of those who suffered from the radioactive fallout from the catastrophic near meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Unfortunately, the nature of the global threat of the spread of the virus seems only to have been fully understood in the U.S. and Europe after the death of a man in Texas, who had been in Liberia. It seems to have brought about recognition that there was a threat to public health and that the consequent economic and political dimensions required a rapid in-depth response of the kind that probably only the military in most nations is capable of.

What is clear is that if action is not taken rapidly, then the disease will spread exponentially.

All of that said, the effect of the ebola crisis should give the Caribbean region pause for thought and to recognize that it too must prepare.

As the totally unfounded recent scares in the Bahamas and Jamaica and a sometimes irresponsible media have demonstrated, it would not take much on a small island to, at the very least, induce panic, destroy the Caribbean’s tourism industry and spark an exodus of those best able to afford to leave.

One only has to look at the way in which visitor arrivals have fallen in parts of Africa and at the huge amounts that have been wiped off the share values of international tour operators and airlines to understand the very real economic danger the Caribbean could face if the virus were in any way to touch the region.

According to the World Bank, in West Africa alone, the negative regional financial impact over two years could reach as much as US$32.6 billion if the epidemic were to significantly infect people in neighboring countries.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the single regional public health agency for the Caribbean, says the risk of the ebola virus being imported to the Caribbean is low. It also notes that it is committed to supporting member states to adequately prepare for potential cases and to implement the necessary steps to protect healthcare facilities, patients, healthcare workers and communities.

While the ebola threat is primarily a matter for public health professionals, government and those responsible for public communications, including newspaper editors, to manage, the Caribbean is unusually economically vulnerable to any event that provides negative publicity.

For this reason, there is a pressing need for all nations in the region to spend time and money on developing, and if necessary implementing, all measures relating to border security, medical preparedness and well coordinated coping strategies.

David Jessop is the director of the Caribbean Council.

David Jessop
David Jessop