Fri | Feb 21, 2020

Lennie Little-White | Public hospitals in crisis

Published:Sunday | May 19, 2019 | 12:17 AM

“If life was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”


These simple words are much more than a nursery rhyme for the majority of Jamaicans. One does not have to be politically partisan to say that our state hospital services could not pass an IMF test – if ever there was one for this sector. Why are we content to tolerate a system that is in disrepair?

Talking about “cyaapet roads” and bridges is sexy and wins votes. Talking about housing for poor people is sexy and wins votes. Cutting taxes for the privileged is sexy and wins votes. Talking about free education is sexy and wins votes. Talking about new BPO jobs is sexy and wins votes. Announcing new high-rise hotels is sexy and wins votes.

However, talking about our mediocre hospital facilities is not sexy and does not win votes.

Before you start hurling rocks, this is not a PNP or JLP problem. This is a national crisis that affects the well-being of the average Jamaican. The majority of us do not have health insurance and cannot fly overseas to get First-world medical treatment. Thankfully, our minister of health and wellness admitted these weaknesses in his most recent Budget presentation and announced ambitious plans to heal this sore foot.

My recent forced sojourn to two of our brand-name public hospitals opened my eyes to the kind of treatment that Jamaicans must accept. Let it be understood that the major problem is not the doctors and nurses and their assistants. Almost every doctor and nurse deserve a badge of honour for the yeoman service they continue to give despite low wages and limited medical tools, which they must use to help their patients to heal and survive. The fact that they continue to turn up every day is deserving of the highest honour and adequate remuneration that will afford them a better quality of life.

Visit any public hospital, and you will see our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters sitting on long, hard, wooden benches or plastic chairs in hot waiting rooms that are reminiscent of the holding areas on the plantation. Take a look at their tortured faces and few of them can be classified as ‘brownings’. They are mirror reflections of the sons and daughters of Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle who cannot afford private medical care. They sit patiently and wait for their names to be called. For some, that call never comes.

These outpatients are the same men and women who “slaved” to send their children to school. These are the same men and women who mow our lawns, cook our meals, wash our dirty clothes, “tidy” our homes, and provide “babysitting” services for our young children. But who among us gives a damn about quality healthcare services that are available to the lumpen?

JADEP and NHF are worthwhile appendages that lower drug costs, but the “elephant in the room” is decent, residential hospital care for all. Unfortunately, Jamaica is not financially able to provide all we need for good roads, a great education, proper housing, potable water, dependable ground transportation – to name a few of those elements necessary to make Jamaica the ideal place to live, raise families, and do business. So what is the short-term solution?


Let’s start with the physical structure of hospitals and clinics. Most of these are worse than the police stations across Jamaica. This needs a bipartisan approach if we must have a lasting solution. We are now an official part of the Silk Road within the China Belt. The same way we have invited China to improve our infrastructure, why can’t we ask them to refurbish existing hospitals or construct new, modern ones with adjoining staff residences in every parish over the next five years?

Who is going to provide manpower to run these hospitals and clinics? It is hardly likely that Cuba will come to our rescue again as it did in the days of democratic socialism. So who can we turn to? We must draw on our own people. We are training hundreds of doctors and nurses and other medical personnel who are lining up to get visas to migrate. This is the Holy Grail for these well-trained professionals seeking a better economic future for their families.


What is the carrot to keep them from migrating? Think outside of the box and make it worth their while. Give all doctors, nurses, and high-end medical support staff ten-year tax-free holidays. Allow each of them a duty-free vehicle every five years. Those who establish permanent residence in the parish where they serve should get preferential loans from the National Housing Trust to build their homes in that parish.

We now give tangible tax incentives to investors in tourism, mining, and BPO. So what’s wrong with giving similar incentives to our medical cadre who are in major demand overseas?

I can hear the cacophony of protests from teachers, policemen, civil servants, all right and similar constituencies. They all have legitimate claims to better working conditions, but I contend that if we are not concerned about the health of the ordinary Jamaican, neither “trickle down” or “bubble up” can solve this major social problem.

How do we finance this new ‘National Hospital Network’? Look at what the lottery has done for Supreme Ventures. Jamaicans have an insatiable appetite for gambling. Start a new international lottery with all the profits dedicated to our hospitals and medical staff. Parallel to the lottery, establish a contributory national health insurance scheme that all can subscribe to like NHT and NIS.

We love to criticise successive governments about not doing enough for the masses. It is time that we afford Jamaicans universal access to quality healthcare in public hospitals and clinics. If we can achieve this, the rich will continue to live, but a few more of the poor will live a little longer.

Now, that would be sexy and win votes.


- Lennie Little-White, CD, MA, is a Jamaican film-maker and writer. Email feedback to and