Story and photos by Gemma Handy
A gift of two field hospitals from the United States is not just another crucial weapon in the country’s Covid fight – they could play a critical role in the event of a disaster too.
Dignitaries and officials turned out to the Defence Force base of Camp Blizzard yesterday for the official handover of the mobile structures which together can care for up to 80 patients.
The air-conditioned medical units are equipped with collapsible beds, sinks, 12 ventilators, plus generators for oxygen and electricity, and can be quickly assembled for anything from a severe virus outbreak to a catastrophic hurricane.
The hospitals were provided through the Miami-based Southern Command’s humanitarian assistance programme. Similar units have been donated to islands across the region.
US Ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean Linda Taglialatela described the facilities as a “symbol of our commitment to the health and wellbeing of our neighbours in this hemisphere”.
“It will increase the ability to address the pandemic, along with future challenges from natural disasters,” she said.
The donation valued at more than US$1.2 million is the latest gift received from the US which has also recently provided Antigua and Barbuda with Covid vaccines and personal protective equipment.
“Given the amount of weather events that happen in the Caribbean, this has been a big project. We have seen the natural disasters that have gone through the Caribbean and this is something very important to have, because once the hurricane or the tropical storm is over – or whatever has happened like the volcano in St Vincent – you need to be able to set up something quickly,” the ambassador told Observer.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne was also among those in attendance at yesterday’s ceremony and described the units as a “significant and most appropriate contribution” and one which adds a welcome boost to local health infrastructure.
He told Observer that the tent-like hospitals would be particularly useful on the sister isle of Barbuda where residents have long decried a woeful lack of medical facilities. The issue was brought into sharp focus in September when a resident died with Covid-related complications while awaiting transfer to Antigua for urgent care.
“We have invested millions of dollars to expand our healthcare during Covid and this is an added facility, but what is good about this is its mobility; it will help us to respond to any disaster in Barbuda so we are very grateful,” the PM explained.
Browne also spoke of the special relationship with the US which is the twin island nation’s biggest tourism source market, as well as supplying 80 percent of the food local residents consume.
“Donations like these help strengthen the bond of friendship between us,” he said.
The PM took the opportunity to request additional Pfizer jabs for children aged five to 11 who he said remain “a vulnerable group”, along with US-manufactured antiviral drugs to treat Covid patients.
The US has also provided key training to Defence Force personnel in how to erect and dismantle the hospitals.
Philmore Mullin, director of the National Office of Disaster Services, said a part of the facility could be erected at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre if the need arose.
“We are also monitoring the situation in Barbuda. Should they have a spike, we can deploy a portion to set up there as well,” he told Observer.
“It removes the challenge that exists in Barbuda where the Covid space is far removed from the hospital compound, and so once we can bring the capacity to the hospital compound it removes the need for doctors and nurses to be going back and forth,” he explained.
The hospital structures are capable of withstanding winds up to 65mph and typically last for more than a decade.
Kevin Bostick, Director of Exercises in Coalition Affairs at the US Southern Command, said the units can be sectioned off to separate Covid patients from those being treated for different medical complaints.
“It also has the capability to give everyone their own private section as the curtains can be pulled around, so it sets up just like a concrete, real world hospital,” he said.
Bostick added that the US was keen to remain a “willing and viable partner” with Antigua and Barbuda, and that the gift underscored the “strength, partnership and bond” between the two countries.