Visits by Minister of Public Health Dr George Norton to hospitals and health centres beyond Georgetown have revealed a most unhealthy state of affairs. The adverse conditions at several facilities, whispered about by staff prior to May 11, complained about by members of the public and denied by those in authority at the time have been laid bare.
While the discoveries at each site visited so far have been appalling, perhaps the most inhuman was at the National Psychiatric Hospital in Berbice, where the Minister found that mental patients were forced to bathe with and drink trench water and the ward was also being cleaned with the same water since there has been no water supply for two months. The conditions under which the patients dwell was also described as “pitiful.”
Water seemed to be what was lacking at many of the facilities visited − Kabakaburi, Karawab, Abram’s Creek, Siriki and St Monica in the Essequibo region. At Siriki, there is also a huge bat infestation problem. And at Suddie, the operation theatre was described as “scandalous,” so much so that Minister Norton advocated breaking it down and rebuilding it as the only option.
None of these problems would have arisen overnight, so the question that must be asked is what the administrators of these hospitals and clinics were doing about these issues.
A hospital that does not have potable water for any period of time is in crisis. Hand-washing is critical to maintaining not just the health of those who visit with various illnesses, but also of the hospital staff – at all levels. When a hospital does not have running water for two months, it can be deemed critical and should be shut down. But not in Guyana apparently, and certainly not at the Canje, Berbice psychiatric facility. Instead, from all appearances, the staff calmly turned to utilizing water from the drain outside. Does this hospital not have maintenance staff? Or if not at least skilled persons on call who could address such a situation?
One has to wonder whether this problem was really just two months old or if it had occurred before and had been addressed. Why was no one pushing the panic button? Medical personnel must be aware that psychiatric patients’ issues are not confined to their mental state. Many of them contract other diseases, some of which are contagious. And with their mental faculties not intact, who’s to say that they would be observing the necessary public health practices as regards itching, coughing, sneezing and general sanitary methods.
Similarly at the Pomeroon River health centres, as was reported, there were “sturdy structures outside and sometimes six or even more black tanks of water,” yet no water flowed through the taps and the toilets were not functioning. It stands to reason therefore that the staff at these facilities would have been constantly putting their health and the health of their families at risk.
Then there are the twin issues of non-functional electricity and equipment, compounded by wastage. In the case of the Suddie Hospital it was a case of a portable x-ray machine that was taken there and found to be unsuitable but was just left there when the next obvious move would have been to remove it to a suitable location and procure another one.
At the Canje hospital, it was the newly constructed ‘Acute Care Centre’ that was found to be unusable as it was dark and devoid of electricity. There were also several storerooms with items that were improperly stored and therefore being made useless.
What these situations all point to is a lack of proper health management systems, including monitoring and evaluation. While the hospital and regional authorities directly responsible for the day-to-day management of these facilities must be held accountable for their current state, overarching responsibility lies with the government through the health ministry; that’s where the buck ultimately stops. The unhealthy state of affairs in the sector must be laid squarely at the feet of the last administration.
Between 2007 and 2013, close to $100 billion was budgeted for the health sector. This would not include the billions more that would have been received in gifts, donations, grants and voluntary service to the sector. It is despicable therefore that there should still be hospitals and health posts that lack running water and with theatres that do not function.
Dr Norton’s familiarization tour is heartening. Note has been taken of the deficiencies and accordingly plans are in train to address same. Careful monitoring must be put in place as well to ensure that these problems never occur again.