Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where Ignorance Is Bliss.

Summary: The media here do not inform or educate well. Recent reports on deaths of Nigerian nurses is a case in point. Are we being informed by CBC's report or warned or scared? Is the intention to give us a full account of the state of medical services or are we being merely encouraged to victimize? Good press reporting continues to elude us.

I feel bad when I see people wallow in ignorance. I dislike it when I know that people are being misinformed, worse if that is being done deliberately. I occasionally take on the role of 'teacher' because I believe better education helps one make better decisions.

So, I take it to the newspapers, television, and radio in Barbados every now and again, for good reason I feel, because they do not do the job that I am accustomed to. They seem to have little sense that they are meant to be our educators. If you have a wide-based media you can tolerate misinformation up to a degree because there is a lot of good information to counter it. In the UK or USA, and even in many poor or developing countries, there is a vigorous and broad-based press that is not government controlled or controlled by certain pressure or lobby groups. We now also have those who use the Internet to report.

I feel like taking it to the formal media more when there are incidents such as that surrounding a group of Nigerian nurses, recruited to work in the main national hospital, who were shrouded in suspicion and negative stories from their arrival here nearly two years ago.

Most of us living in this region know that it is full of suspicion and superstition. We should also know that it's full of ignorance, not of the malicious kind necessarily, but mere lack of real knowledge. We have beliefs that drive what we do regardless of other evidence to the contrary. For example, 'Don't go out in the rain, you will catch cold' (I understand there is a cold virus and it's not distributed in rainfall). We have also the kind of fears and foolishness about things sexual that lead to people misapplying 'potions' to raise their virility and end up killing themselves.

For me, one of the roles of the media is to seek to educate. So I remain blinking as I read of accusations that some of these Nigerian nurses died of AIDS. I hear loud protests by those who represent the nurses and read that some 40 nurses 'walked off the job', denying that this happened and asking their national nursing federation and the local union to deal with the issue on their behalf (see report). I hear accusations against the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that the story that they 'broke' on January 12 was 'damaging and false'. I read that a Nigerian government minister came to Barbados to investigate the story and found it to be groundless, and could have far reaching consequences for Nigerian nurses and other professionals working in Barbados, the wider Caribbean, or elsewhere in the world, if the Nigerian government does not take on headlong the position of CBC. What the government official has found is that one nurse died of breast cancer, another remains alive, and a third has a cause of death not yet disclosed to the them. All of that is informative but it really does little to illuminate anything other than confusion.

I have not seen a story with a government or hospital statement to say what were the facts--leaving aside any person's details. And so the pot bubbles and people get concerned and hot air rises and 'fires' are fanned.

Since the group of Nigerian nurses came to Barbados, there have been a slew of stories concerned about their being here, questioning their qualifications, questioning whether they had been screened for communicable diseases, and more. Remember, for whatever reason, this is a country that has some concerns about any influx of certain foreign workers (who funnily enough look mostly like the majority of Bajans)--Chinese, Guyanese, Jamaicans, Vincentians, etc.--though the voices are mute with regard to others (who oddly look like only a large minority of Bajans)--Britions, Canadians, Americans, etc.

I repeat that I have not seen any good information from the government or the hospital officials to deflect these stories, and I apologize if it was published and I missed it.

On top of the balls of news confusion we have some very interesting politics and policies. I have heard that the Barbadian government does not scan prospective foreign employees in the health services for communicable diseases. To me that is scandalous, given the sensitivity of that area of work; given that this small island has been free of certain such diseases for a long time, and given the risks that a spread of certain such diseases on a key part of the economy, its tourism. This small island has very limited medical resources, and it is irresponsible in my mind to play loose and free with the general health of the population. I admit that such scans would could also compromise the island's tourism industry because the natural extension would be to check the medical status of all incoming persons. But you know what? A lot of countries do this. In the developed world, the best know instance is Australia--another island, though a tad bigger than Barbados: if you are travelling from certain places known to have certain communicable diseases, and your medical certification and vaccines are not in order when checked at the airport, you are held in quarantine and may have to go back from where you came. It is also very common in African countries, especially for diseases like yellow fever, in part to protect those who arrive (you need a vaccine) and to avoid the spread or recurrence of a disease that the authorities are trying to control. I read today that Barbados' Health Minister has declared that the government has 'no intention of screening' health facilities workers. That worries me. Funny, we check on the health of imported foods but not on persons entering the island. 

For me, one issue is whether the media has done much to clear the waters. If a medical worker dies of AIDS, what is the relevance? Is the health of patients or fellow workers at risk? If so, how? What I heard of the CBC broadcast leaves the implication that something risky might have happened, but nothing is really ever mentioned, nor was there even a mention that if anyone had been in contact with these persons they needed to go to be tested and where that should be. CBC's concerns are what? 

The nature of the HIV/AIDS disease and its spread are known (exchange of bodily fluids and blood from contact between persons, tainted blood getting into a person, pre-existing condition with someone having HIV from genetic connection), but often confused with things that are believed not to apply (toilet seats, sharing food, living together, breathing the same air, etc.) I have heard people who host radio programs, discuss medical issues and completely misinform about the origins of HIV and AIDS, and laugh about the misinformation, and pander to some stereotypes about it (such as it being just a problem for gay people)! Irresponsible.

I have not heard discussions on the radio on the Nigerian nurses matter in part because I have travelled a good part of the time since CBC made their broadcast concerning the nurses. But I have read a mixture of rebuttals and opinions about whether CBC was acting properly, if the remaining Nigerian nurses who later went on strike were acting properly, and so on. But there has been little about the real facts and about what the country's real concerns should be. That's the fault of the media, the hospital authorities and the government.

But from the time that the nurses arrived in April 2007 there has been a schizophrenic attitude, even a reported smearing by the former Health Minister (see Nation report of April 7, 2008). If that story is true one has to wonder how government works in Barbados. The former PM recently used 'poor rakey' to describe Parliamentary activity. Looks like it was rampant already.

I do see a letter in yesterday's paper from someone who also questions CBC's motives and showing the need for more public discussion on health issues (see Nation report, January 27, 2009). Was the motivation all about sensationalism and victimization, rather than information? What has been done subsequently to straighten the record and allay fears?

What is clear is that Bajans, like any nation, have legitimate concerns, and these are going to be high when they feel that their health may be compromised. So, if there is a salmonella outbreak and shelves of food need to be cleared the important facts need to be known and the origins of the tainted goods discovered, and the cause of the contamination understand and hopefully corrected. 'What would happen if one read or heard a headline such as 'Chinese food tainted with salmonella', with very little additional information? Even if it only related to baby milk, people would start panicking as they tried to spit out the mouthful of chicken lo-mein they had just bought from the local Chinese take away. They would want to scour the labels of food they had bought to see if they were of Chinese origin. The Chinese diplomats in the country would be down on the news organs and the government like a ton of bricks seeking at least a clarification and perhaps correction. Nigerian nurses?

The media like 'hot button' issues. HIV/AIDS is one of these. Fears about foreigners is another. Compromised health care is a third. And so on. Mix them together carelessly and you have a nice little toxic cocktail. If it were me in charge of CBC I would not be sitting with a smile on my face, but would be wondering when my butt was going to be kicked and what my next assignment was going to be.

CBC seem stuck, standing by the 'truth' of what they reported. The point is not necessarily the truth but what are we expected to do with the information. Let me ask CBC a few questions. Do we hound the other nurses? Do we insist that all nursing/medical staff be screened for communicable diseases? Do we insist that no medical workers enter without such tests? Do we need to identify people who might have had 'at risk' contact with those who died? Will CBC tell us about cases of salmonella, chicken pox, small pox, TB, MRSA disease, air borne fungal infections, staff with erratic behaviour, incidents of stolen medication, staff with drug records, staff with dubious qualifications, botched procedures, legal cases pending against the hospital or doctors or nurses for forms of malpractice, etc.? If we are to be warned and informed, then let's be thorough.

Just this weekend, the PM called on the media and others to do more, some, any investigative journalism into government activities. His call needs to be generalized. But again, as I say often, you get to live with what you tolerate. I hope that the sword that he wields smites as far as is needed.

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