By Orville Williams
The Government of Antigua and Barbuda is planning to address the shortage of nurses in the country by recruiting nationals, both those who reside on the island and abroad, along with foreign nationals from ‘friendly’ countries to fill the gaps.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne made that declaration during an appearance on the Grenada Broadcasting Network’s (GBN) Beyond The Headlines programme this week, while speaking on the prolonged impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Our healthcare workers, they’re strained. They have had to treat Covid patients for the last 19 months and one of the problems we have within the OECS subregion is that we do not have a lot of healthcare personnel.
“Our healthcare services and personnel have been actually supplemented with Cuban nurses, but even Cuba itself is stretched in terms of providing nurses to the region,” the PM said.
Antigua and Barbuda, like much of the Caribbean, has long been subjected to a migration pattern that sees nurses moving to territories like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, in search of better-paying jobs and greater benefits.
This has continued throughout the pandemic, as expected, with many nurses taking advantage of the ‘travel nurse’ industry.
Despite the attractive nature of these jobs abroad, some of the nurses who migrate feel as though they are being forced to make the decision due to the workload and the working conditions they are expected to endure, on top of a meagre salary.
The impact on Antigua and Barbuda’s health system is concerning, according to Browne, especially considering the investment made to boost the infrastructural capacity to deal with the pandemic.
“We had spent an enormous amount of resources adding additional healthcare facilities. We established an Infectious Disease Center, [an] additional 75-bed hospital…in fact, we have now about three beds per thousand of the population.
“Part of that health infrastructure includes a number of polyclinics, two of which were recently constructed and these are like mini hospitals.
“So, whereas we [now] have the physical infrastructure in place, we do have a shortage of personnel.”
As mentioned previously, Cuba – Antigua and Barbuda’s longtime ally – is now having to hold back on its support for friendly countries as it deals with the impact of the pandemic, after providing medical personnel to assist with emergencies across the world for many years.
With that additional hurdle in the way, Browne pointed to other potential sources that could provide the personnel needed, at least in the short term.
“We’re now seeking to import nurses, possibly from India. We have approached the government of India to assist us in getting some nurses here.
“We’re even looking within the diaspora to try and attract Antiguans in the diaspora who have nursing experience and who are available to return here, even temporarily, and we’re also employing retired nurses.”
In a more long-term solution to the issue, the government has pledged to remove the limit on the number of nurses that can be trained annually and to work closely with the University of the West Indies Five Islands campus to establish an international nursing programme.