Even as President Trump belittles Puerto Rican political leaders, the Americans on the island have been swamped by a hurricane-caused health care crisis, according to doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes there.
The disturbing news reports show that sick and injured patients, with gas supplies limited, are struggling to navigate tree-blocked roads to get to hospitals that often lack power for cooling and to provide medical services. Doctors are reporting shortages of drugs and medical supplies.
Public health experts increasingly fear that health conditions will worsen, even as more rescue and recovery aid slowly trickles to a spot that long has wrestled with poverty and the isolation of many of its rural communities.
That’s because Puerto Ricans, already stressed by catastrophic storm damage, may be wearing down more by standing in long lines of limited food, water, and gas supplies. If they need drugs, many may not have them or be able to get them, with so many privately owned pharmacies destroyed or unable to reopen. Doctors, by and large, have not returned to treating patients in their offices. Tropical heat soon may combine with big amounts of standing waters to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects that then will spread infectious diseases.
Desperate politicians and other leaders in Puerto Rico and the nearby American Virgin Islands have issued multiple assistance pleas about their dire conditions. Celebrities and politicians on the mainland have joined in, also with rising criticism of the Trump Administration’s seeming lesser response to the calamities of Americans in the Caribbean, as opposed to those in Texas or Florida.
Trump has insisted that his Homeland Security department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. military, and other U.S. agencies have been doing “a fantastic job.” Elaine Duke, acting Homeland Security director, has infuriated Puerto Ricans with her assertion that the situation was a “really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths” from the hurricane. Trump, over the weekend, threw gas on the fire by taking to social media to assail critics and to argue that Puerto Ricans needed to do more for themselves.
This colloquy is unnecessary and unhelpful. In my practice, I see both the huge harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and their giant struggles to access medical care—this in normal and not catastrophic circumstance. Trump, his Administration, and political partisans, in health care especially, seem to relish dividing rather than uniting Americans, ramming ahead with policies that put the rich above the poor, that pit different parts of the country against each other, and that divide young and old, men and women, and people of color and the LGBTQ.
It’s shocking that reputable polls have found that just half of respondents know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. That’s also true of our people on the U.S. Virgin Islands, also devastated by hurricanes. This means we must pitch in to help them just as we do for Texans, Floridians, and other U.S. citizens struck by natural disasters. The president should know that the world weighs not only what he says and Tweets, his actions matter—and he hasn’t helped his case for a solid disaster response in Puerto Rico by going off for yet another of his many golf sojourns.
The storm recovery in all affected areas needs to be a long, sustained effort. As Floridians and Texans know and see daily, recovery will take years. And, despite the much publicized and deserved praise, say, for ordinary Texans extraordinary hurricane rescues, truth be told things got messy, especially in health care, due to the wild circumstance that ungodly conditions create. Just consider the unusual setting in which a citizen rescue group had to pull a pistol on and get in fist fight with the operator of a nursing home to get him to let them conduct a last-ditch evacuation of frail, elderly residents as waters rose all around them.
Tough hombres and rough talk and action? Maybe. But it’s past time for Washington to open its heart, mind, and our collective assistance to help the sick and desperate across the great land, especially now in Puerto Rico.