By Gemma Handy
Food supplies at the nation’s lone psychiatric hospital plummeted so low last month, staff say they were forced “to beg” for donations from kind-hearted local companies.
A letter to health chiefs dated October 15 claims that “dire” food shortages at Clarevue Hospital have been ongoing for more than three years.
The situation was so severe, the institution’s leaders say they were considering temporarily discharging stable patients to the care of their families, and refusing any further admissions.
The allegations are contained within a cutting riposte sent to health officials in defence of a long-standing Clarevue volunteer who recently came under fire for a Facebook post she wrote urging the public to donate food.
And they lift a lid on the treatment of some of the nation’s most vulnerable residents who have long endured stigma, as well as decrepit accommodation and poor infrastructure.
The letter – which Observer has seen and verified its authenticity – is signed by several high-ranking Clarevue staff and addressed to the Ministry of Health’s Permanent Secretary Ena Dalso-Henry. It was copied to the Prime Minister, Health Minister, Chief Medical Officer, and a handful of other government ministers and officials.
It condemns comments made in articles which appeared in other local media on October 14 and 15. In them, Dalso-Henry denied that the food situation was “dire”, claiming the volunteer was acting on “misinformed hearsay”. She said an investigation had been carried out which supported her stance, and accused the volunteer of “malicious intent”.
But Clarevue staff say the volunteer’s Facebook post – which prompted a flurry of donations – was truthful and described her as a “stalwart supporter and fundraiser”.
“This lady is solely responsible for acquiring tens of thousands of US dollars in donations (not cash) from Jumby Bay and other well respected and caring businesses on the island,” it states. “In a world of fake news … the inconvenient truth is a bitter pill to swallow.”
It goes on to say that the volunteer had “no motive”, as was implied, and that Clarevue staff would not allow her character to be “assassinated”.
The volunteer has been a much-loved face among Clarevue’s dozens of patients for many years.
In addition to freely giving her time, she has procured a yoga instructor who held weekly sessions with patients prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Before the lockdown, she was on our compound sometimes three times a week interacting with our patients in exercise classes, as well as instructing them in arts and crafts and therefore is well acquainted with our food shortages which have been going on for some time,” the letter states.
It says the ministry’s comments threaten to see the hospital lose its “best ally”.
“The fact that the ministry would use such a tactic to sidestep their accountability and responsibility is cowardly and unacceptable,” it says.
The letter also refers to previous correspondences dating between 2017 and October 2020 which indicate, it claims, that the ministry has been “well informed of the dire food shortage” for years.
Clarevue bosses say the shortages were due to vendors refusing to bring supplies due to non-payment.
“Has anyone stopped to realise and acknowledge the humiliation and shame we have experienced … at the hands of irate vendors who have not been paid? Many for over a year! Some refuse to take our calls or even speak with us in public,” the letter continues.
Staff have “had to literally beg good corporate citizens for contributions”, it says. “It is these citizens who have supplemented the institution’s food requirements as our stocks went lower and lower.”
The letter acknowledges that the “Treasury’s hands are tied because… no additional cash was injected into their department to make payments to our vendors who supply food and other items to our facility”.
A decision was reached during an administrative meeting on October 8 that the hospital would inform the Chief Magistrate and the Chief Medical Officer that it had “two choices to alleviate the dire lack of food”.
“Temporarily discharge as many mentally stable patients” as possible to relieve the burden, “refuse further admissions” or “possibly both choices”, the letter states.
During that meeting a phone call was placed to the Prime Minister’s office and his secretary was “informed of our predicament”, it adds. “We strongly felt it was time he was also made aware of our dire food shortage.”
Clarevue’s beleaguered workers have long decried the conditions they and patients are forced to endure, and have even gone on strike in the past out of protest.
Dalso-Henry did not respond to requests for comment up to press time. Observer also reached out to Health Minister Molwyn Joseph for comment which has not yet been forthcoming.
Last month, the permanent secretary conceded that food supplies were low but denied the situation had reached breaking point.
“An inventory and assessment was done into the stock levels at the storeroom which supplies the kitchen – and I am comfortable that while it’s not at its best or the volume we would wish to have on hand, we have food supplies and continue to ensure that the daily meals are met to feed the patients,” she said.
Meanwhile, repair work to several buildings on the hospital compound is said to be underway.
Information Minister Melford Nicholas recently told media that Cabinet had pressed to ensure funding was in place to care for Clarevue’s patients.