The Ebola crisis and the Caribbean

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 has been a Caribbean nation: Cuba. It, almost alone in the world, recognised early the extent of the potential crisis we all face if the epidemic is left unchecked.

As is now well known, Cuba is providing support for those who are stricken in West Africa and has sent to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, sixty two doctors, 103 nurses and all of the necessary logistical and medical support its team needs to help stem the epidemic.

It now has in place the largest medical team from any nation, including from those that are vastly wealthier, and has made clear that after it has made other Cuban medical personnel Ebola-ready, it will send a further 296 doctors, nurses and support staff to Liberia and Guinea; the other African nations most affected by the disease.

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.

In a recent commentary entitled ‘Heroes of our Time’, 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, its involvement in the 1970s in helping end colonialism and ultimately apartheid there, and its continuing commitment to education and healthcare across the continent.

Dr Castro 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 melt down of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

In the case of the Ebola crisis, the former President hopes, the selflessness of those going will capture the hearts and minds of other doctors around the world ‘who possess the resources, practice a religion or have the deepest conviction to fulfil the duty of human solidarity’.

Let us hope too that it gives pause for thought among those in the US Congress and the Cuban-American community who continue to hold back those in the higher reaches of the US Administration who want to take forward present low key exchanges that could lead to a new relationship.

Cuba’s response adds significant resources to the work of hard pressed NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières which had been operating from the outset with those infected with the virus but which, despite significant finance from the EU, has been unable to cope.

Unfortunately, the nature of the global threat of the spread of the virus seems only to have been fully understood in the US and Europe in the last week. It was the death of a man in Texas, who had been in Liberia, which seems to have brought about the 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.

As a result the US has now sent 1,000 troops to build clinics and other facilities and President Obama has publically recognised that the issue, while humanitarian, is also a matter of national security, and one where the US is prepared to take a lead, but which requires the support of other nations.

Others too are now beginning to respond in a more timely manner. China and the United Kingdom have only latterly understood the extent of the threat, with in Britain’s case 750 military personnel and a medical ship being sent to Sierra Leone.

What is now clear is that if action is not taken rapidly then the disease will spread exponentially and will rapidly break out of the three African nations in which it is presently isolated. Already at least 7,000 persons have been infected and more than half that number have died with a number of medical personnel suffering the same fate.

All of that said, the effect of the Ebola crisis should give the region pause for thought and to recognise 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 neighbouring countries.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the single regional public health agency for the Caribbean, says the risk of the Ebola Virus Disease 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 co-ordinated coping strategies.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at