By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Nov.12, 2021)
The hospitalisation of former prime minister James Mitchell coming as it did a few months after PM Gonsalves sustained a busted head and felt compelled to fly to Barbados for treatment, has brought into sharp focus the legacies of colonialism, priorities of post-independence governments, the inadequacies in our health care system and the pressing task confronting our nation.
When the British colonisers formally left SVG in 1979 following nearly 200 years of colonial occupation, genocide, slavery and exploitation, a military barracks was our makeshift hospital. The facility was woefully inadequate, and many citizens remain convinced that it remains so. A good brethren justified his decision to take the vaccine for COVID-19 because he would rather take his chance with the unknown than end up in Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH). Many Vincentians have for generations viewed the hospital as a death trap.
We have indeed come a long way. Today most of our doctors and specialists are Vincentians. In the old days, many were foreigners, especially from India. In the last few years, new operating theatres have been installed, but no one confidently welcomes a visit or stay on the wards of MCMH. Through the kind generosity of our Cuba brothers and sisters, we now boast a well-equipped Modern medical facility at Georgetown. However impressive some may view these gains, Gonsalves and Mitchell’s hurried departure to Barbados for urgent medical attention not only exposed our inadequacies but in some ways brought into stark relief the priorities or lack thereof of their governance. After all, both men have dominated and occupied the seat of power for 37 of our nation’s 42 years of independence.
And here is where Fitz Huggins comes in. Huggins does not care for the good graces of diplomacy. He was not trained as one and its shows. He wears as a badge of honour his support for the governing party. He is a political jihadist and aims his sharpest spears at opposition politicians and supporters. He wades into matters social and political in ways no trained diplomat would, but few will question his nationalist and patriotic bonafides.
The ageing Gonsalves, who holds the foreign ministry portfolio, clearly does not have the energy to globe-trot as he did in the past. Gonsalves gluttonously craves the big stage. His conspicuous absence from the climate summit in Glasgow, Ireland, is proof positive is slowing down, except there are more ominous health reasons.
Fitz Huggins have demonstrated an ability to build contacts and seek out practical benefits for our country. There has been no one in a foreign posting that has brought home more tangible benefits. Some may dismiss his efforts but ask yourself why no other diplomat in our history has been as visible as Huggins. Huggins has acquired used vehicles and fire engines for our police, seeds for our farmers and tonnes of relief supplies whenever there is a disaster.
Those who frown on or dismiss these efforts need to be in the seat of a distressed citizen who makes an urgent call to a police station only to be told there is no police vehicle. Worse, watch your house or business burn for lack of a functioning fire engine.
Gonsalves and Mitchell rushed off to Barbados. Most citizens are unable to do so and are thus denied urgent and adequate care. With government assistance, many ordinary citizens have had the opportunity to travel abroad and access medical care. However, except for the rarest of medical diagnosis and care, we should acquire it here.
Both the ULP and NDP have promised to build a modern hospital. It is time we get serious with health care. Preventive care must be prioritised, but we must not prevent illness. Central to the comfort and satisfaction of citizens is knowing that they could receive adequate and competent care.
If Fitz Huggins is made ambassador-at-large with the mandate to search for medical assistance, we can be assured he will give it his best effort. Take, for example, the absence of an MRI machine in SVG. Vincentians fly to neighbouring countries for this service. They must find money to pay for the transportation, hotel, internal travel as well as test.
It is incomprehensible that no government in post-independence SVG has committed to acquiring one of these machines. An internet search produced this fact: A used low-field MRI machine can be as cheap as US$150,000 or as expensive as $1.2 million. For a state of the art 3 Tesla MRI machine, the price tag to buy a new one can reach $3 million. The room that houses the machine, called the MRI suite, can cost hundreds of thousands more.
Would the investment be worth it? We think so. Early diagnosis may be less of a drain on public resources and saves lives. Further, the quest for such diagnostic tools must be done in the context of the construction and operation of a new hospital. We are not here talking about a new wall structure like the public library built with the assistance of the Taiwanese.
Confidence in our health care facilities will increase only if we acquire modern equipment and diagnostic tools. Long gone are the days when hospitals were halfway houses where people went to suffer on their way to the cemetery.
Take Taiwan, one of our closest allies. Could they not be convinced to offer this much-needed assistance or contribute to its realisation? Cuba, our oppressed, suppressed, blockaged and resourced starved sister nation, built the diagnostic centre. With the necessary diplomatic cover and mandate, Fitz can travel around the world in search of this kind of assistance.
Although we argued about the cost and politics of the Argyle International Airport, the settled view is that the airport is both necessary and essential. The mantra was build it, and they will come. A well-equipped hospital should be priority number one with a commitment to accomplishing it. Such a completion and celebration may have to wait for another day. What cannot wait is the dire need for a piece of medical equipment as essential and necessary as an MRI.
Plain Talk is confident that as Ambassador at Large, Fitz Huggins has the commitment, enthusiasm and drive to ask world leaders for those things our nation lacks but needs.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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