COVID-19 and NCDs

On Friday, Guyana observed Caribbean Wellness Day 2020 under the theme, “Power Through Collective Action — Stronger Together 2020.”
The observance was mandated by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Conference of Heads of Government in 2007.
This year, Guyana joined the observation as the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on individuals and communities as a whole became yet another stark reminder that both the health authorities and citizens must continue to take the issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) very seriously.
Based on what the medical professionals have found so far, most persons who have died because of contracting COVID-19 had had some kind of underlying health complications, many of which are related to NCDs. Guyana’s COVID-19 death rate at the moment is 52. For a small population such as ours, this is quite disturbing, to say the least.
Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony confirmed, during his address on Caribbean Wellness Day 2020, that NCDs are responsible for most of the deaths occurring in Guyana, and they are linked to sedentary lifestyles. They are driven primarily by four major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol, and unhealthy diets.
NCDs pose devastating health consequences for individuals, families and communities, and they continue to severely impact the health, economy and development of Guyana, and the rest of the Caribbean as a whole.
The Government recently pointed out that, since 2017, critical areas in the nation’s healthcare delivery were ignored to a large extent, and this is why renewed efforts have to be made to bring all levels of health sector up to par, including putting effective and efficient systems in place to tackle NCDs.
According to PAHO/WHO, people with underlying health conditions, such as NCDs including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer, have a higher risk of contracting a severe form of the COVID-19 disease, and are more likely to die from COVID-19. Risk factors for NCDs can make people more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with COVID-19. For example, smokers may have reduced lung capacity, which would greatly increase risk of serious illness.
PAHO/WHO has suggested that informing populations about these health risks posed by COVID-19 is critical. In addition, health services need to be adapted to maintain essential NCD services, to ensure continuity of care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to poor lifestyle choices – tobacco use, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity – NCDs have resulted in large numbers of people falling sick and dying.
In 2007, CARICOM leaders signed what they described as the “ground-breaking” Port of Spain Declaration, aimed at uniting countries to stop the epidemic of NCDs. The declaration was recently evaluated by a team of regional and international experts.
A few months back, leading health expert Dr Alafia Samuels disclosed that, based on a recent study, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago were found to have the highest mortality rates for premature cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the Americas.
In relation to Guyana’s case, while there have been some positive moves in tackling NCDs, such as finalising the Tobacco Control Legislation etc., some experts believe that enough was not being done in the fight against NCDs.
It could be recalled that there was an NCD Strategy in the years 2003-2008, and again in the years 2008-2015, which outlined a comprehensive and effective programme to fight NCDs. It is not clear if these are still being used as a guide by health authorities.
Former Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy was quoted in this newspaper as saying that some of the crucial programmes that were previously in place to tackle NCDs appear to have been reduced or totally abandoned during the tenure of the previous administration. Dr Ramsammy, in particular, had pointed to the aggressive education and awareness campaigns that were very much visible some years ago. Also, community health fairs and school programmes and other initiatives which were used to address issues such as positive lifestyles had become less visible.
These are all useful strategies in ensuring the message of healthy lifestyles continues to reach everyone in every community across the country, and it is hoped that the new Minister of Health would engage in a serious review of what currently obtains at the Ministry. From all indications, some of these measures are being taken, but they are being done in a limited fashion.
We believe that discussions surrounding NCDs should constantly be kept on the national development agenda, where serious efforts are made at all levels to reduce the large numbers of persons suffering or facing death. On this basis, there is need for more collaborative efforts among all stakeholders – including support from private sector bodies – to tackle NCDs, since all of them are affected by the losses in the labour force etc.
That said, while the various stakeholders are involved in the battle to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hoped that they would redouble their efforts to effectively address NCDs and their risk factors with a medium-to-long-term vision.