Healthy living in the Caribbean should not be measured by only statistics which focus on tabulating the number of lives saved from early demise owing to a particular ailment and stacking them against those prematurely lost to that disease.
This is the view of University of the West Indies Chancellor Emeritus, Professor Sir George Alleyne, who contended that “the common perception of health as solely an intrinsic good is limiting,” as he delivered the university’s 70th anniversary lecture in the Cave Hill Campus, Henry Fraser Lecture Theatre, on Wednesday.
Sir George’s speech was on ‘the Perception and place of Health in Caribbean Integration’. He asserted that the place of regional health lies in the continuous well-being of the largely resourceless region’s ‘human capital’, which has not enjoyed as strong a focus as reduction of mortality.
“One of the difficulties is in finding the appropriate metric for health as a component of human capital and the one most frequently used is life expectancy,” he said
In citing an example of how there could be reasonable life expectancy but poor mental health and low production affecting the quality of life, Sir George pointed to one of the effects of inadequate nutrition.
“It is now well recognised that stunting as a result of infant malnutrition is a marker for impairment of the cognitive function of children and tracks through to adulthood, thus impacting negatively on future economic potential.”
While discussing the importance of quality of human life and it’s relationship to production for better standards of living Sir George paid tribute to efforts to also preserve the quantity of lives.
“Recently, we have been advocates that the noncommunicable diseases-cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory disease have a major impact on human capital. These lead to premature mortality thus reducing the quantity or stock of the human capital and because of the chronic disability that accompanies these diseases, they impair the quality of that capital.
“This issue of preservation and development of human capital is fundamental for the Caribbean and must be an area of the kind of common concern that should be part of the integration discourse,” he added.
In hailing a 2002 CARICOM heads of Government declaration that “the health of the region is the wealth of the region” he noted that much of the Caribbean is dependent on that human capital for creative forms of production because of the absence of much natural resources.
“What is significant for us in the Caribbean is that for the most part we have limited produced capital and except possibly for two countries, very limited natural capital and our possibility of sustaining or enhancing our human development will depend very much on the extent to which we manage our human capital,” he said.
For Sir George, a renowned surgeon and professor of medicine who rose to become the two-term director of the UN Pan-American Health Organization, world health reports of which the Caribbean is a part do not look at the quality of life of those who did not prematurely die from an ailment, but simply lumps them all among statistics of the living.
For an island like Barbados that stands among a largely resourceless region, the issue of how well those who are living with NCDs are doing, is important to the overall quality of health of the nation, and it’s productive workforce.
“Our possibility of survival and development depends essentially on the extent to which we manage our human capital,” he said, adding, “the major contributors to human capital are education and health”.
For this reason he said, “the Caribbean Heads of Government may have been prescient or just wise when they declared that the health of the region is the wealth of the region.
This might be paraphrased to say that the health component of human capital is a significant contributor to the nation’s wealth”.
He said that when Caribbean countries measure their well-being in economic terms they rely on some measure of income and production, usually Gross Domestic Product, but added, “this is a necessary but not sufficient measure of well-being or potential well-being”.
“I would like to see our [UWI] scientists in their studies on human capital demonstrate the value of the university’s contribution to the stock of human capital in the region and in addition, clarify to policy makers how significant a loss we would incur when ill health impairs the quality of that human capital.
“This might even convince leaders that it makes economic sense to constrain the purveyors of ill health and understand that the short-term gain and the blandishments of corporate social responsibility are outweighed by the value of the loss of both stock and quality of human capital.” (GA)