A political novice by the name of Dr Karen Cummings was recently chosen to replace a veteran, Deborah Backer, in the National Assembly, but while she may be a newcomer she has already identified a number of issues in the health sector she would like to address.
Dr Karen Cummings was sworn in as an APNU parliamentarian the week before last, following the resignation of Attorney-at-law and Deputy Speaker Deborah Backer owing to illness, and while she has not yet been given her portfolio she believes that by virtue of being a medical doctor health
would be her area of focus. She presently works at the Industry Health Centre, which comes directly under the control of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC).
During a recent interview with the Sunday Stabroek the new parliamentarian said she entered politics because she felt the need to make hear voice heard, especially because she is a woman, and she believes that the PNCR and more so APNU allow for gender equity and the empowerment of women “reaching their full potential and climbing the economic pyramid.” The party wants Guyanese to have a good life, she said, and although the country has many resources and there has been development in some areas, it would be nullified without human development.
Many were surprised that Cummings was chosen to replace Backer and many questioned how long she has been a member of the PNCR.
When this was put to her, the new parliamentarian said she has always embraced the party as her parents supported it and she never saw herself supporting any other party.
“Knowing that I had gotten free scholarship from nursery to university I think I am obligated more or less to follow the party and see what contribution I can make,” Dr Cummings said.
Pressed about how long she would have been a card-bearing member of the party the doctor would only say: “I always, as I said before, embraced it, but I wasn’t in the forefront of the party, I will answer it in that way.”
One of the interesting details about the new parliamentarian is that she and her husband have publicly supported two different political parties. Dr Immanuel Cummings, who lectures at the University of Guyana, mounted the platform of the PPP/C during the last election campaign, while the new parliamentarian was on APNU’s platform.
Asked about this, Dr Cummings apart from dismissing the question as inappropriate responded that she and her husband are two different individuals with different personalities and they respect each other’s opinion.
“I wouldn’t try to merge my individuality into his, so being both professionals we tend to have our space to say what we want to say and embrace which party we want to embrace,” she said.
And when she decided to mount APNU’s platform it did not come without personal hardship as she was dismissed by the government from the position she held as the regional medical superintendent of Region Four, a post she held for almost three years.
“It was rather unfortunate,” was how she described it, going on to say that she saw it as marginalization and victimization since other persons, mostly male, who worked in the government system campaigned and were not fired.
She said prior to her dismissal there was no issue with her performance on the job and admitted that she was placed in a very difficult position after she was fired as she did not work for about five to six months.
“If this is the kind of gender equality or if they [the Government] really care about persons especially professionals and they want them to stay in the country, that was really not a demonstration of this,” Dr Cummings said.
She recalled that she was first asked to resign but she refused, as she saw no reason for this since a precedent had already been set, but later she was dismissed by way of letter. No one in authority discussed the issue with her and there was also no warning given.
Asked what she is bringing to the National Assembly, Dr Cummings said as a medical practitioner she would want to focus on health issues adding that in APNU’s manifesto it had been stressed that a good life for Guyanese is what it wanted.
“To my mind I have seen that we need to ensure improved access to quality health care and good nutrition for all ages,” the new parliamentarian said, adding that there is a growing problem of chronic nutrition diseases and this should be addressed even though genetics and the environment are also contributing factors.
While she has not been given her portfolio as yet she said she would like to work towards strengthening the primary health care system and hopes to capitalize on best practices which she would have seen in Guyana and abroad. The habit of having an evidence-based approach is something she would also like to see as the country moves towards achieving universal and comprehensive health care.
Asked how she would specifically use her seat in the House to work towards achieving the listed goals, Dr Cummings replied that with the budget soon to be presented she would be paying keen attention to “what steps can be taken to improve [health] and not just having rhetoric but really come down and make changes… so we can have improved health and reach our development goals.” A reduction in maternal and neo-natal mortality is also an issue she would be focusing on.
Asked if she is putting her boss, Minister of Health Dr Bheri Ramsaran under scrutiny in terms of health care (the GPHC although semi-autonomous does come under his ministry), Dr Cummings quickly responded in the affirmative, asserting that transparency and accountability are the order of the day.
She is also concerned about the level of violence in the society, and said this should be addressed especially gang-related violence, domestic violence and drug trafficking. The environment is also an issue and she hopes that Georgetown can be restored to its ‘Garden City’ status instead of remaining as the garbage city.
Politics and religion
Dr Cummings is a deeply religious person; in fact she was once the first elder of her church, the Victoria Seventh Day Adventist Church, and is presently a serving elder. Some believe that religion and politics should not mix, but the new parliamentarian said that she would stand firm on being a Seventh Day Adventist.
“I am going to stay resolutely on course in terms of my religion, but I think I need to speak out on social justice, I need to speak out on inequalities without compromising my standards…so I don’t see anything wrong in that area,” she said.
Told that many believe that politics is a dirty game, Dr Cummings said there is always the exception to the rule and that she would be playing it clean: “…if God has put me through it he is going to bring me through it.”
There are some who believe that Dr Cummings is new to the game of politics and that there might have been more deserving persons in the partnership to replace Backer, but when this was put to her she said the question should be directed to Opposition Leader David Granger, who is the leader of APNU and the PNCR.
Cummings was born in Berbice but grew up in the historic village of Victoria, and following her primary schooling she went on to the Bishops’ High School. After secondary school she attended the University of Guyana where she trained as a doctor and moved straight into the primary health care system where she worked for about eight years before she read for her Master’s in Public Health at the St George’s University in Grenada.
Outside of her profession, Dr Cummings said she is actively involved in community work and is very active in the group in Victoria which has been working towards preserving the rich history of the village that was the first to be bought by former slaves. She is also an honorary member of the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) national group that focuses on children with handicaps.
She has received the full support of her relatives on her move to become a politician even though her only daughter, who is in second form at Queen’s College, was somewhat surprised at the move since her mother does not like being in the public eye.
Dr Cummings said since she was a child she always knew that the medical field was her calling, as being a Christian she did not want to focus only on spiritual healing but also medical healing.