Over the last few weeks we have lost a number of Barbadians to sudden death. I take the opportunity to extend condolences to the affected family members and loved ones. By the fourth sudden death, the communication expert in me was wondering where the official responses about the deaths was. Reaction to death is not governed by rationality.
Further, there is already a lot of static in the communicative air across Barbados which left Barbadians in a heightened state of unease. Whether or not the deaths in themselves were statistically normal, the context of the deaths would have made communication the sensible option.
By the context of the deaths, I refer to factors such as their closeness to each other and some of them occurring in very public spaces. This with the gaps and uncertainty in some other messaging around the time of the deaths led to unease and concern. Some of the major open ended questions included the unanswered public concerns about the water meters the Barbados Water Authority has chosen to lay; the safety or health challenge posed by having a cement processing plant upwind of a flour mill; and the phantom import of chicken wings which has remained a mystery seemingly to both Government officials and ministers.
Although supposedly completely unrelated, the various gaps and absences in communication resulted in public doubt, uncertainty and finally the manufacture of a rumour to fill the information void. More than if the creators of the rumour were ‘wutless’, well-meaning or simply acting out of fear, the bigger takeaway form this experience has to be that we re-evaluate the purpose and the value of public information and how and why we trigger explanatory mechanisms to avoid public anxiety.
Up until earlier this week, only the doctors in Barbados knew that sudden death statistics were unchanged over last year. Had some of these deaths not occurred in public spaces perhaps the severity of the alleged reason for the deaths would not have reached a public crescendo. If non-communicable diseases are the cause of the deaths and there is such a substantial epidemic in Barbados then I think this shows up two deficiencies with our medical professionals.
Firstly, if we accept that the reasons for the death is our rate of non-communicable diseases (NCDS) then this is a clear admission by the medical professionals that they are not on top of the epidemic and making any positive changes to it through the use of medicine, lobby or advocacy.
Our highly paid doctors cannot be happy with this state of affairs. If in 2016 we still have doctors whose primary role is to diagnose diabetes or hypertension and prescribe amputations or treat strokes, our paradigm of health and wellness is sorely stuck in the post war era.
Secondly, if the epidemic is really the cause of the dramatic sudden deaths, it reveals a dearth of research by our highly paid doctors.
From when my grandmother had diabetes we were importing medication for diabetes. Now we are still importing medication for diabetes. Is this medication tested on the Barbadian gene pool? Is there anything which could make this medication less or more effective in the Barbadian context? Is there yet any kind of significant relationship between Barbadian research and the development of diabetic medication?
The Barbados Drug Service has just opted to replace several brand name medications with generic drugs on its formulary. How are the medical professionals monitoring the effects, if any, of the changes in drugs in their patients?
Apart from the formulary changes, the discussion about the Drug Service had also thrown up some anecdotal information about how Barbadians take medication. Have we been able to do anymore to ensure that individuals are doing better at taking their medication?
These are the discussions which are worth having if the real cause of the sudden deaths is our NCD rate. I am one member of the public who believes that the NCD rate could only provide part of the answer to the sudden deaths in Barbados.
To fully convince me, it would not only take the comparison of Barbados’ statistics from last year, but also a comparative analysis of the sudden death rates across the Caribbean.
The profile of NCD rates is about the same for our Caribbean neighbours; therefore their sudden death rates should follow similar trends. The comparative analysis would act as a type of control grouping.
If we have others factors in Barbados causing sudden deaths it is not surprising that people with NCDs, and thus already depressed immune systems, are most susceptible. Unless we dig a little deeper into the numbers pool, could we not stand to miss other pointers?
I find myself asking these questions, especially in the context of the announcement that there is now a mystery disease affecting our dairy industry. With all that has happened in the last few weeks, is it not reasonable to ask further environmental questions about our island home?
Let us take, for example, the causes of NCDs. Where hypertension and diabetes are mainly hereditary and diet oriented, cancer can also be caused by environmental hazards. Is our rate of cancer in Barbados seemingly high? What could the environmental factors for this be? How can we reverse the current trends?
The chorus of medical doctors that Barbadians need to eat better and exercise to curb the trend in sudden deaths is to assume that they have done research to prove that there are no other factors which could be causing sudden death. I assert this because doctors are highly paid, responsible professionals who would not make such finite statements in the absence of research findings. Therefore, I think the doctors of Barbados should make their research public. Many have voiced disappointment about how ‘uneducated’ Barbadians were to buy into the rumour. I see it a little differently, in that an education about English vowels and arithmetic does not make an individual an expert in causes of sudden death.
To bring us all closer to a real understanding of some of the issues, I think it would do the medical professionals well to explain to us their research findings. While they are at it, they can also tell us why dairy industry samples would have gone overseas for further testing, and why we never thought to send the body of a deceased Barbadian, or two, overseas for further testing.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.