Puerto Rican Healthcare After Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico. A category 5 hurricane with winds over 150 mph, Maria caused power outages across the island for weeks on end, destroyed sanitation systems, and made travel nearly impossible. On the Monday following the disaster, the governor of the island state Ricardo Roselló rightly declared that “this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens.” Two months and billions of dollars in foreign aid later, Puerto Rico is still in dire need of relief and assistance. One aspect of Puerto Rican society has been particularly exacerbated by the hurricanes this fall: healthcare. The lack of electricity and medical supplies has made it extremely difficult for proper care to be delivered to the people of Puerto Rico, both those hospitalized before the disaster and those in need of healthcare after. The condition of the hospitals and infrastructure on the island along with insufficient supplies has caused hundreds of Puerto Rican deaths. The federal government has consistently been sending teams of medical professionals, Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, along with supplies to the commonwealth since the hurricane, but this has still not relieved the situation in the Caribbean Sea. Healthcare teams in Puerto Rico are likely feeling powerless and frustrated given the lack of aid they are receiving from the federal government and President Trump. To make matters even worse, the crisis is now also causing a severe saline shortage in the United States.

Though aid is being consistently sent to Puerto Rico, the main problem is the politicization of the aid. The attitude of the President towards the situation is also creating distrust and uncertainty between the island and the mainland. President Trump’s tweets and comments have angered many. One tweet accuses native Puerto Ricans of wanting “everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort” while a recent comment suggested that the citizens of the island must know that the United States cannot send them aid “forever.” The political nature that federal aid towards this natural disaster has taken on is hindering any progress or collaboration on the situation. Many Americans, including the Trump Administration, tend to oppose large sums of taxpayer dollars going towards foreign aid. Although Puerto Rico is not a foreign country, the same sentiment holds true for the victims of Hurricane Maria. Despite this, the reality of the situation is that 3.4 million Americans are still enduring the disastrous effects of Maria, many without running water, proper sanitation, and, importantly, healthcare. Six weeks after the hurricane, former governor Alejandro García Padilla shared on Twitter a picture of a team of medical professionals performing a surgery only by the light of a flashlight. This picture demonstrates how the failure of the federal government to re-establish a somewhat solid infrastructure, in terms of electricity, communication, and transportation, is the root of the failure of healthcare in Puerto Rico. When these problems are combined with the lack of treatment of those with chronic illnesses, there is not only a healthcare crisis, but also a “public health emergency” as The Atlantic recently reported.

The disaster in Puerto Rico has also caused a medical crisis, specifically a saline crisis, in the United States. Hundreds of factories that produce saline as well as other medical supplies, like cardiac pacemakers and surgical tools, have been halted by the recent hurricane. The FDA has temporarily allowed the import of some of these products from other countries; however, it is critical that Puerto Rico regain its production power for this crisis to be truly averted. Hence, an increased federal presence in Puerto Rico is necessary not only to maintain the health and care of the 3.4 million American citizens on the island, but also to ensure the health of Americans on the homeland.

Ideally, a change in attitude by the current administration and an increase in aid and supplies would dramatically change the situation in Puerto Rico. However, the politicization of this disaster in America seems to signify a need for international aid in resolving these healthcare crises. Some international organizations, such as Oxfam, did get involved in the beginning of October in hopes to supply aid. This was an unusual occurrence as natural disasters in the United States are usually completely taken care of by the federal government. While Trump’s sentiments towards Puerto Rico’s current condition are that it has “thrown our budget a little out of whack,” Oxfam, along with International Medical Corps and Save The Children, have graciously given relief and funds to the commonwealth. The relief from these organizations, unfortunately, will not be enough to completely rebuild the infrastructure of the island, a necessary objective in order to get its health care on the correct path. More international involvement is needed to make a real difference in Puerto Rico.

Despite the common misconception that short-term assistance will not produce long-term solutions, immediate aid is, in fact, necessary for Puerto Rico in order for them to regain the capacity to maintain day-to-day activities. This is particularly important in places such as hospitals and nursing homes where electricity, transportation, and communication are necessary tools. The international organizations that have been aiding Puerto Rico have made some difference, but if any real changes are going to be made, the amount of aid needs to be increased. If international governments were to help with relief in Puerto Rico, the country could finally jumpstart its recovery period and be able to once again provide the services that ensure a healthy population and thus a growing economy.

Victoria McShane