Last Sunday, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves told the nation that he was unwell and intended to travel to Venezuela, and perhaps Cuba, for medical attention. This commanded national attention, and necessarily so since the Prime Minister occupies the most powerful office within the constitutional framework of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). And this intersection between the personal health of the Prime Minister and the political health of SVG invites reflection if for no other reason than it is a reminder that our politicians are flesh and blood like all of us and subject to all the vagaries that challenge our physical and mental wellbeing.
Certainly, Dr Gonsalves’s announcement of his urgent need for medical care highlights the fact that life and good health are not guaranteed and the political universe can be turned upside down in a minute. But it also points to certain deficiencies in, or perceptions of the health services available here, which see persons, once they are able to finance it, routinely opting to travel abroad for certain medical interventions, once the ailment is assessed or perceived to be of a serious nature.
Undoubtedly, some see in the Prime Minister’s illness and departure for Venezuela an opportunity for political gain. This may take multiple forms. Some see this as an affirmation of their claims of the inadequacy of our hospital services. Others would claim that the Prime Minister’s absence highlights a leadership vacuum within the governing ULP. And still others would insist that a movement towards a generational change in the political leadership of the Unity Labour Party is long overdue. The truth is of course more complex. But these criticisms in and of themselves point to the health of the political system. Free speech flourishes in SVG across multiple platforms. Whether the subject is the health of the Prime Minister or any other matter, the capacity of Vincentians to render their opinions freely is a testament to the strength of our democracy.
Certainly, there has been significant improvement in the health sector over the last decade or so. The establishment and upgrade of several polyclinics, hospitals and Smart clinics around the country, particularly the Modern Medical and Diagnostic Centre at Georgetown has made a huge difference. The availability of public haemodialysis services at two hospitals / clinics have brought this life saving service within reach of hundreds of Vincentians, thereby prolonging their lives. Then there are the interventions of the World Paediatric Project, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars that have made SVG the Eastern Caribbean centre for paediatric surgery. Finally, the recent announcement by the Government that construction of the referral hospital at Arnos Vale will commence next year could not come soon enough.
Work on a nation’s health services is never complete, especially when those services are provided free of charge or are heavily subsidized, as is the case here in SVG. Much work remains to be done to improve the quality of care provided at our health facilities and to improve the conditions of work of those who provide care, even as we await the opening of the promised facility at Arnos Vale.
At some point in our lives, most of us will get ill. Even a Prime Minister. We wish Dr Ralph Gonsalves a speedy return to good health and we look forward to welcoming him home. We also thank Venezuela and Cuba for their willingness to extend medical care to him.