Revelations during the week that Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan had entered the United States on September 20 via Brussels and had likely brought the Ebola virus with him provides much food for thought.
Mr Duncan reportedly fell ill six days later, attended Texas Health Presbyterian, but was not asked anything about his travel history. He was merely given antibiotics and sent on his way.
A mad scramble then ensued; not only to find Mr Duncan, but also to locate all the persons with whom he would have come into contact, and obviously, find those which the secondary group would have encountered. Where that ripple ends is a matter of conjecture.
But it raises concerns about institutional controls at points of entry, the vigilance of those charged with protecting air and seaports, as well as the attitudes and commitment of health officials who are on the front line of dealing with contagious and non-contagious diseases, and educating the public.
One could be accused of burying one’s head in the sand if one denied that any major outbreak of a contagious disease in the Americas poses a threat to Barbados. As a tourist destination, heavily committed to getting American, Canadian and British citizens through our sea and airport, we are never far from being on red alert when these countries face any health scare.
As a tourist destination it is quite understandable that we are always very keen not to spread panic. Indeed, there is often the circling of wagons in officialdom when a major health issue comes to the fore, as every effort is made to assure the public that “everything is under control”. But is it?
If one considers the virtually steady influx of guns, ammunition and drugs into Barbados by air and sea –– and they can be visually detected –– what can we say about viruses and diseases that are only observed when they start to manifest themselves.
In situations where one’s life could depend upon the level of awareness displayed, it is incumbent on our health officials that they not attempt to lull Barbadians into a false sense of security. Our officials would be better served if they heightened John Public’s appreciation of the possible horrors that await them if they lapse in their collective vigilance in times of health threats.
In a country that prides itself on its security awareness and controls, if the Ebola virus entered the United States, it can certainly enter an ever-welcoming Barbados where security measures are often chronically slack. Having a laissez faire attitude to most things in Barbados is almost cultural.
The Ministry of Health has embarked on a public awareness programme where it has preached the virtues of practising proper hygiene. All well and good. But that will assist only in curbing the spread of deadly viruses or diseases; not necessarily preventing their appearance on these shores.
There is currently an outbreak of chikungunya in Barbados. This is a very serious virus, but mild in comparison to Ebola. We are told that more than 60 per cent of the Grenada and St Lucia population have been affected by chikungunya. So far, health officials in Barbados have confirmed 40 cases of chikungunya and have revealed that 130 are being investigated.
More often than not, difficult times provide opportunities to test one’s ability to overcome adversity. We would prefer no chikungunya in Barbados; but perhaps the virus provides us with an excellent opportunity to really test ourselves for more serious scenarios –– such as Ebola.
There is no better time than now for all and sundry to put the necessary sanitary and hygienic practices into full force at home, work and at play. If we should fail at curbing a non-contagious virus such as chikungunya, God help us if we are confronted with something worse!