By TTMSA-Trinidad & Tobago, JAMSA-Jamaica, IFMSA-Honduras, IFMSA-Grenada, IFMSA External Affairs Regional Assistant for the Americas and IFMSA Regional Director for the Americas
Climate change has shown to have a direct correlation between global warming and more destructive hurricanes developing in the Atlantic region. We have seen over the past decade a stark increase in the frequency, intensity and distribution of hurricanes to the Americas region. It is projected that with the increase in temperature by 2 degree celsius, models will confirm a 1-10% increase in the amount of tropical cyclones . In fact, it is even more alarming that from the inception of storm tracking since 1851, this year is the first time that we have recorded nine named tropical cyclones formed before August and thirteen before September. The main driver for this increase in hurricane activity to historical record-breaking statistics is the abnormally warm ocean water resulting from climate change .
The Caribbean and Latin American region experienced a double whammy of health emergencies in 2020; battling the Coronavirus pandemic while being threatened and battered by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. The Annual Atlantic Hurricane season runs from June to November is usually met with much preparation, however, no one anticipated the massive impact of the Coronavirus. COVID-19 exposed deep rooted inequities within our societies, and revealed the ability of our health systems to cope with stressors .
An important consideration in this dual health emergency was the application of safety and health measures and guidelines during emergency response and aid to those affected by natural disasters to prevent the spread of the virus . Precautions and measures can be taken in preparations for the hurricane, in implementing adequate governmental protocols and in public shelters. For citizens in safe zones and who do not need to evacuate, preparing “Stay-at-home kits”, which include 2 weeks of emergency supplies, is recommended. If evacuation is needed, the population should prepare a “go kit” with personal items for the emergency period and include items that can help protect them and others from COVID-19. In addition, citizens should ensure they have at least 1 month supply of essential medication (ie. prescription, cough suppressant, cold medication, etc.) . Governments should encourage citizens who were forced to evacuate to go to relatives’ houses in safe zones and use shelters as a last resort, which should be easy to access. Shelter governing bodies should ensure adequate implementation of health prevention measures within the shelters. A universal COVID-19 quarantine protocol should also be created for national shelters to enable prompt response and management of suspected cases, while mitigating disease spread. Each government should also develop strategies to mitigate disruptions to healthcare and diagnostic services during hurricanes. This could include an interagency approach with national shelters liaising with nearby hospitals, laboratories or non-government agencies such as the Red Cross to ensure access to emergency treatment, COVID-19 testing and supportive treatment, and thus protecting each individual’s right to accessible healthcare . In public shelters, all physical distancing and public health measures should be respected, while avoiding all unnecessary contacts . Rigorous establishment of public health guidelines is paramount in supporting health systems cope with the combined stress of natural disasters and a pandemic.
These two health emergencies have shown how crucial Healthcare Resilience is, which requires a multifaceted approach incorporating prevention and preparedness, response to and recovery from stressors. It builds on the foundation of quality healthcare which is critical for achieving effective Universal Health Care. Investors and stakeholder buy-in are crucial for attaining resilient healthcare systems; thus allowing us to bounce back, safeguard our communities from illnesses and ensure access to appropriate treatment whenever necessary. We can achieve this through increasing government budget allocation to evidence driven healthcare, effective administrative policies to protect the health workforce from burnout, and efficient management of resources. These changes will advance the holistic development of the health sector, increase our system’s capacity and develop the necessary infrastructure to ensure accessible patient oriented healthcare within our communities. They will also enhance our ability to cope with future global health threats .
Considering the well-known harmful impacts of human activities on climate change , and thus the increase in strength and frequency of natural disasters , and the adverse effects of these emergencies on health , there is an imperative for health sector engagement in building resilient health systems. Capacity building and empowerment of the health workforce is paramount to support emergency preparedness and management. The essential role of a well equipped, motivated, competent and skilled health workforce in Health Emergency Preparedness has been recognized by the WHO, which calls for continuous training of health professionals in emergency response . Capacity building can be done in various ways, including workshops, meetings, curriculum development and simulations . Hence, health professionals and health students must seek existing opportunities to capacitate themselves, contribute in providing those opportunities, and advocate for the creation of additional capacity building resources and events. Importantly, health professionals have a responsibility to raise awareness about the importance of health emergency preparedness and management among all stakeholders, including fellow health professionals and the general public. We encourage all IFMSA members to engage in universal health care, health system resiliency and health emergency prevention advocacy efforts: only with everyone mobilized can we hope to have safe and accessible health care for everyone.
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