Hurricanes, Zika, and Healthcare Collapse

July 12, 2016
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Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.5 million people, is suffering through one of the hardest economic conditions while combating the spread of Zika. Zika is a virus primarily spread through infected mosquitos, it has mild symptoms that can last over a week but the main concern is microcephaly, a birth defect that causes smaller heads in babies. Puerto Rico’s tropical climate along with large amounts of rainfall are ideal conditions for mosquitoes to proliferate.

Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.5 million people, is suffering through one of the hardest economic conditions while combating the spread of Zika. Zika is a virus primarily spread through infected mosquitos, it has mild symptoms that can last over a week but the main concern is microcephaly, a birth defect that causes smaller heads in babies. Puerto Rico’s tropical climate along with large amounts of rainfall are ideal conditions for mosquitoes to proliferate.

In 2006 a policy, which led to high numbers of job growth, was not renewed by the United States congress the irony is that most jobs were in pharmaceutical production. This caused unemployment to reach record numbers while living wages also decreased. Economic conditions were made worse by 2008 housing crisis.

The poor economic conditions resulted in a migration to nearby cities in order to find jobs. Combating the risk of infection is made difficult due to the poor infrastructure and large metropolitan areas. Schools were also defunded which resulted in the loss of a primary source of health information for young children.

Congress had previously passed a policy that allowed Puerto Rico to sell municipal bonds that prioritized the payment of investors over public spending. The bonds were federal and state tax exempt this attracted multiple hedge funds looking to invest. Unfortunately Puerto Rico was unable to revitalize their economy or their public services.  Conditions worsened when the number of bonds increased and they were downgraded as a potential risk. Hedge funds are filing lawsuits in order to pressure Puerto Rico to repay.

Hospitals are currently being defunded to meet payment deadlines. San Jorge Children’s Hospital, one of Puerto Rico’s largest hospitals, has closed 2 wings and 40 rooms to offset the new budget cuts.  Currently there is no vaccine for Zika so hospitals cannot take preventative measures, they can only take in and treat Zika patients. The hospital managed to stay open by freezing positions, cut pay for employees, and reduce hospital hours. Some hospitals have completely closed from an inability to pay utilities like electricity and a loss of personnel since most positions became nonpaid. Doctors along with other skilled workers are now leaving the island to find work.

The healthcare system will receive more pressure with the upcoming hurricane season. Each year people are injured, loose their homes, or die from the heavy rain season but the economic conditions could escalate the situation. Hurricanes are deadly around coastal areas with winds over 75 miles per hour. It’s easy for working hospitals to become overwhelmed by new patients particularly by those who need long term care.

Puerto Rico is not an official state so they cannot declare bankruptcy which means they will continue to defund programs to continue paying their debt. With hurricane season, the Zika virus, and economic burdens Puerto Rico’s healthcare system is in need of support.