Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are stunting economic growth across the region, potentially robbing the region of more than 10 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to a respected health economist.
Professor Emeritus Karl Theodore, Senior Consultant Advisor to the HEU, Centre for Health Economics in Trinidad said on Wednesday that while the NCD situation in the region is often seen as a healthcare crisis, it is also weakening economic output.
And that impact, he asserted, has been underestimated despite the large number of studies done over the years.
“The minimum figure we are seeing in all these studies [on] what the NCDs are costing our economies is five per cent of our GDP per year. What is interesting about this is that not a single one of these studies has looked at the full range of these NCDs. Each of these studies only looked at cardiovascular disease and hypertension, or diabetes and something else. They look at two or three of the NCDs and came up with these figures.
“What I am saying is that if you look at a small set and you get a five per cent figure, if you look at the full range of NCDs and you include in that mental health, the figure we are talking about for this region is that [NCDs] are costing us more than 10 per cent of our GDP every single year,” Professor Theodore said.
“If people want to understand how much 10 per cent of GDP is, the money we spend on healthcare in our countries [on] average is six per cent and below of our GDP. We are letting these NCDs rob us as nations of more than 10 per cent.”
Professor Theodore made the comments during a discussion entitled Managing the Costs of and Economic Fallout from Non-Communicable Diseases in the Caribbean at the May 2023 edition of the Central Bank of Barbados’ Caribbean Economic Forum.
He pointed out that these diseases are also greatly impacting the workforce.
“The NCDs are causing problems with our labour force because of the morbidity and the high mortality levels, and they are damaging our capital pillar because with the spending we have to do [on] the NCDs, we have less to invest into things that make our economies more product,” Professor Theodore said.
“It’s not simply that it is shrinking us but it is really weakening us. It’s not just so much [about] health but NCDs are destroying us as nations.”
Dr Kenneth Connell, Vice President of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of West Indies Cave Hill Campus, lamented the hesitance of manufacturers of unhealthy food products to offer healthier options.
“We cannot allow the commercial determinants to sidestream and delay [change]. It’s almost like you are on a railway track and you are trying to move forward and people are holding back and saying ‘let’s wait a little longer’. . . . We cannot wait, we cannot afford to wait,” Dr Connell said.
“The same profits that industries may be trying to grab at are the same results in the future that are going to work out to their detriment. They will not have the labour force, and at that point, if they then decide ‘well, we can no longer do this’, then it will be too late.”
Director of the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre, Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR), Professor Simon Anderson said that despite the important lessons learned at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when countries used stringent policies to tackle the health emergency, authorities have lost focus.
“Post-pandemic, it seems as if we have gone back into the old days of doing very little. We cannot afford that; we have to ensure that post-pandemic, if there is required funding that needs to be given to the matter, we need to do it. We need to talk across stakeholders to make sure that there is a whole of community approach to dealing with the problem.
“We really need to sit down with the policymakers and stakeholders to say what are the problems, what are the priorities and how do we encourage our society to change their mindset,” Professor Anderson said.