Authorities and experts attending a virtual seminar on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on sustainable development in the Caribbean have warned that the high prevalence of the diseases – such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer – is exacerbating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and hindering the region’s progress towards achieving sustainable development due to their multiple health, economic and social consequences.
The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said the warning comes from authorities, representatives of international organizations and specialists participating in the seminar organized by ECLAC, ahead of the 20th meeting of the Monitoring Committee of the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC) that was held on Friday.
The seminar on NCDs and their impact on sustainable development in the Caribbean was inaugurated by Alicia Bárcena, ECLAC’s executive secretary, and Camillo Gonsalves, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Information Technology in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The moderator was Diane Quarless, director of ECLAC’s subregional headquarters for the Caribbean in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
“Not only does the COVID-19 pandemic continue to rage in the Caribbean, it is one of the subregions of the world with the highest prevalence of non-communicable diseases,” Bárcena said.
She referred to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) that shows that NCDs are the main cause of death in the subregion’s countries, ranging from 57 per cent in Haiti to 83 per cent in Barbados.
In each Caribbean country, Bárcena said more than half of all deaths annually can be attributed to NCDs, “which also contribute significantly to disability.”
She said the pandemic has aggravated the risks that people with NCDs face.
“Not only do they continue to be at greater risk of dying or suffering severe illness from COVID-19 infection, they also have been affected by interruptions in health care due to services being overburdened,” said Bárcena, calling for accelerating vaccination efforts.
She said the rate of full vaccination in the Caribbean amounts to 35.2 per cent, with great heterogeneity between countries.
This percentage, she indicated, is below the global rate (39.0 per cent) and that of Latin America (47.5 per cent).
“The entire region of Latin America and the Caribbean should strengthen production, distribution and access to medicines and vaccines,” urged Bárcena, stating that, to achieve this, on September 18, ECLAC presented the Plan for Self-Sufficiency in Health Matters, requested by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
“We are moving from design to implementation of the plan, with focal points in all the countries and various meetings planned for the coming months,” she added. “We hope the Caribbean will join us.”
Gonsalves, according to ECLAC, “expressed appreciation for the opportunity to address the problem of non-communicable diseases at a time when all Caribbean countries are fighting the pandemic and many of their ministers and leaders are talking about climate change and the subregion’s future in the framework of the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26).”
“Non-communicable diseases are responsible for six of the 10 main causes of death in the subregion”,” said Gonsalves, warning that they entail “a heavy economic cost for governments, due to high health expenditures, as well as for people.”
He said NCDs have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty, “which means that addressing them constitutes a development challenge for the Caribbean, which is also true for other phenomena, such as climate change.
“Non-communicable diseases are within our control, they are preventable,” the Vincentian finance minister said, stating, however, that current policies are not effective, “because they are not sufficiently focused on prevention, nor do they include cross-sector and coordinated approaches.”
The specialists have called on governments to invest in a comprehensive approach to NCDs, with focus on strengthening primary care and preventing risk factors, such as an unsuitable diet, physical inactivity and tobacco and alcohol abuse.
They also urged for taking growing mental health problems into consideration.
According to Bárcena, COVID-19 was “a wake-up call about the importance of addressing non-communicable diseases.
“Because care and treatment for NCDs were reduced during the pandemic, it is urgently necessary to support the efforts of health services with innovations in telemedicine and other solutions,” she said, calling for the need to utilize all available tools to foster healthy lifestyles, strengthen primary health care and community-based programs, and promote food security, nutrition-sensitive social protection and support for farmers.
The ECLAC head also contended that it is critical to achieve greater equity in access to essential medicines, reduced waiting times and reduced out-of-pocket payment burdens for people, while also expanding partnerships with academic institutions in the Caribbean and reinforcing inter-agency collaboration.
“The idea of using taxes on unhealthy products is also generating interest and should be carefully weighed using a sound socioeconomic analysis,” she urged, adding that in order to procure a resilient post-pandemic recovery, “Caribbean countries need a healthy and productive workforce.”
Bárcena noted that the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Caribbean dropped by 7.7 per cent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, “compounding the high rates of indebtedness faced by the subregion’s countries.”
ECLAC estimates that in 2021, the Caribbean’s GDP will only grow by 4.1 per cent.
“By taking an economic approach to the analysis of the NCD problem, we hope that policies aimed at promoting health and preventing disease will not only be cost-effective, but that they may also be cost-saving, thereby making government health expenditures more effective,” Bárcena emphasized.
“This is a problem for society as a whole, which must be addressed beyond the health field,” she added. “Interventions on non-communicable diseases are within our reach. You can count on ECLAC.”