The Overlooked Health Crisis

When was the last time you exercised? How often do you consider the bigger picture behind what you eat? These might seem like preachy, out of place questions but they’re linked to a health crisis we tend to overlook. Based on data from CARPHA, over 75% of the Caribbean’s deaths occur due to NCD’s each year. In case you don’t know, NCD stands for Non-Communicable Disease. These are conditions which aren’t transmitted but are caused by environmental, behavioral and genetic factors. They include things like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and some mental conditions. Consequently, despite economic gains and development, larger and richer Caribbean entities like TT, Jamaica and Guyana have continued to lag behind in overall life expectancy figures both regionally and internationally. What’s going on?

The Overlooked Health Crisis

In The Wake Of A Pandemic

A better discussed health crisis lodged into the public’s psyche would be the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though varying in different waves, death rates for the disease have demonstrated a very telling trend. That is, most deaths occur among those who are elderly and/or possess comorbidities. Most of these comorbidities tend to be the aforementioned NCD’s and are oftentimes cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Indeed the American CDC noted that persons with lifestyle disease are far more likely to be hospitalized with severe coronavirus symptoms. Consequently, a study published by the World Obesity Review noted that obese patients were 115% more likely to require hospitalization throughout the initial waves of COVID-19. As newer strains of the virus become less severe but more virulent, these figures are changing however the overall situation remains telling nevertheless.

Amidst A Culture Of Consumption

What’s behind this high incidence of CDC’s however? In today’s modern society, fast food is plentiful and many tasty and convenient foods are readily available on the shelves of our groceries with minimal or no preparation necessary to consume. This however comes at a cost. Many of these processed products are saturated with considerable amounts of sodium, sugar and other additives in other to maintain their taste and shelf life. To the human body, these simply aren’t things we were built to ingest large amounts of. The CDC and Healthline both note that sugar heavy foods severely increase the risk of obesity and diabetes for all ages while high sodium intakes constitute a monumental risk to developing stomach, colon and throat cancer.

The Overlooked Health Crisis

Did you know for example, that a single pack of instant ramen can contain 125% of the daily recommended intake of sodium for the human body? Sodium is also a major culprit in hypertension and cardiovascular conditions. Unfortunately, in today’s rat race social fabric, many people lack the time or willpower to make room for diet and exercise in their daily lives. They prioritize quick meals over healthier, self-made ones and many companies exploit this to create a culture of consumption wherein they constantly market these easier alternatives to the average consumer.

Searching For Solutions

How then can this be rectified? After all, the government can’t force feed people an ‘ideal diet’ nor should it engage in wanton taxation of ingredients or foods it deems harmful as this usually carries over to broader inflation which affects the most vulnerable. It can however foster and support programmes which seek to encouraging growing healthy local produce either through loans or backing related industry. It can reduce or remove taxes on all major fruits and vegetables as well. Rather than punish fast food outlets with increased penalties it can instead incentivize healthier production by giving tax breaks to those which specialize in nutritionally sound and healthy menus as well as granting loans for food businesses seeking to start up and operate within this niche.

Start From Young, Assist The Old

Shrewd governments should consider ingraining healthy eating and lifestyle habits into citizens from as young as possible as well. Extra emphasis should be placed on physical activity, not just as another subject but as a core element of daily school activity. Apart from reforms towards feeding programmes and what is or isn’t available in school canteens, teaching healthy self-improvement as a daily part of education should more than be a priority. Consequently, consider that in nations like South Korea, where high sodium foods are common due to the heavy use of MSG, soy sauce and other sodium rich ingredients, there exists initiatives for yearly mandatory stomach cancer screenings, particularly for older individuals.

The Overlooked Health Crisis

This drive towards catching the problem early should be tantamount here in the Caribbean where cancer treatments can be extremely costly or outright unreachable for many, even where public healthcare is involved. Millions could also be saved which goes towards treating illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease if we implement early screening such as simple and cost effective yearly blood tests. With the aforementioned heart and metabolic disorders being considerably high regionally, early signs of being pre-diabetic, concerning blood readings or unhealthy cholesterol levels can be spotted and individuals strongly encouraged towards changing their habits.

Determinism and Responsibility

The US CDC as well as the National Library of Medicine agrees with the reality that you can’t force diet and exercise on people however incentives can be of great value. These can range from mandating planned buildings with open areas and spaces for exercise to crafting urban policy which seeks to reduce road vehicle traffic and increase the use of cycling. Put simply, there is no ‘cure all’ approach. Holistic action across all sectors be it agriculture, urban planning, everyday policy craft and obvious areas such as healthcare are all necessary so as to create a cohesive landscape aimed at reducing NCD’s and improving lifespans.