The spread of the coronavirus has raised the spectre of pandemic devastation which could result in poorer nations where investment in healthcare is well below the standards recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In Africa the 53 Africa Union (AU) member states are struggling to invest half of the WHO recommended US$40 per person which is worrisome. In Jamaica, spending is also around half of the six per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) recommended by the WHO.
Yet, the consequences of inadequate spending in this area are reduced productivity and earnings. And now the WHO is expressing deep fears for nations with inadequate health systems as the coronavirus spreads. The expected economic impact is being tabulated in the billions of US dollars.
Strong measures implemented by China, South Korea and Italy may be beyond the ability of nations like Jamaica and other Caribbean nations to duplicate, where the health and security services are under resourced and already under strain.
It is a pivotal moment to stop and reflect on the fact that investing in health also represents an investment being made in the wider economy.
The Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) has in the past noted that allocations to the island’s healthcare system are generally regarded as expenditure rather than an investment.
A former MAJ president, Dr Shane Alexis, argued that this was a mistake as a poorly resourced public healthcare system could adversely impact the economy of the country.
Poorly handled health, he noted, resulted in worker absenteeism and reduced productivity.
In one study, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) estimated that about 13 million man hours have been lost as a result of the outbreak of the Chik V virus some years ago.
Dr Alexis proposed that if the health sector was one such that where turnaround waiting times were less, the consequence would be less individuals lost to chronic disease and the country would be poised for more growth.
The reality is in many Caribbean states, the healthcare system exhibit a chronic shortage of resources to adequately fund the purchase of medical equipment, drugs and to recruit medical personnel to cater to citizens.
Professor Marvin Reid, executive member of the MAJ, said in one forum that across Jamaica the quality of health service is so varied that to a large extent it is almost “like a lottery, depending on where you go and what time you go.”
There are other reports of severe personnel and bed shortage, leading to delayed treatment times and increased suffering among those seeking healthcare.
In more recent times, the Ministry of Health has tabled a Green Paper proposing a compulsory national health insurance plan that would offer equal benefits for contributors regardless of income.
Such a system would pull more private health service providers into a national system, increasing the resources available to all.
Financing for the initiative would be sourced from a combination of employee contributions or premiums and industry taxes.
About 500,000 people of the 2.7 million people living in Jamaica have health insurance, leaving behind more than 80 per cent of the population to fund healthcare out of pocket.
What many do is avoid health costs all together by neglecting health care, or endure wait periods of many weeks for diagnostic tests or surgical operations.
Among the revenue sources Jamaica’s Ministry of Health has proposed to better fund a national health insurance system are taxes on sugar and cannabis which will help to raise billions to supplement healthcare costs.
The Ministry has also been seeking public buy-in for a tax on sugar, and has proposed a vehicle levy, citing the high public cost borne by the State in treating with vehicular accidents and respiratory diseases.
Also proposed in a green paper summarising these initiatives was an excise tax focusing on cancer caused by tobacco and alcohol and a gaming and lottery levy supporting programmes for mental illness and substance abuse are also on the cards.
In other plans, the Ministry has been considering expanding diagnostics and surgery to private providers under a system financed centrally.
While an improved health system and better resourcing cannot stop the advent of opportunistic viruses, a system with more health workers, improved facilities, better equipping, more beds and unlimited drugs would make containment more effective .
The consequences for the economy would be less downtime for workers, increased productivity and improved growth, overall.