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Seeking ‘emergency rights’ in Caricom

By Rickey Singh

 THE sudden death in  Trinidad and Tobago last Thursday of a 35-year-old Guyanese visitor (Jeetindra Sookram) who was on holiday with his common-law wife, has dramatically brought to public attention  the urgent need to correct a serious weakness or deficiency in the Revised Treaty governing the functioning of the Caribbean Community.

 It was a tragedy waiting to happen. Ironically, it has occurred in the nation that’s rightly referred to as the birthplace of our 15-member regional economic integration movement currently struggling to keep hopes alive for transformation as a seamless or single economy with fundamental rights for all its citizens.

The words that quickly came to mind on reading of the sad circumstances surrounding the sudden death, from suspected heart failure, of the Caricom national Sookram, a farmer, were “contingent rights”. Application of such rights could have resulted in the visitor receiving the required emergency medical treatment. Regrettably, a cluster of “contingent rights”—applicable to any sudden event or in emergency circumstances — (for example, the Sookram case)—although discussed over the years for incorporation in the Caricom Treaty, remains a work in progress.

However, the  Secretary General of Caricom, Irwin LaRocque, reassuringly said in our telephone conversation yesterday that in accordance with a decision by Heads of Government, the Secretariat was vigorously engaged in preparing an all-embracing  document dealing with “contingent rights”, applicable to all citizens and including emergency medical attention in any member state.

This document will be forwarded to all member states of the Community ahead of the annual Heads of Government Conference scheduled for July in Antigua for inclusion in the Revised Caricom Treaty. 

The Secretary General said it was a matter of deep regret when unfortunate incidents such as the case involving Mr Sookram occur. He felt it could serve as a reminder why the governments of the Community should be even more active in advancing the work programme on “contingent rights” for citizens.

Interestingly, against the backdrop of the Sookram case, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan quickly moved into defensive posture to make clear that the visitor was “never denied medical care” when it was first sought at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex. 

According to media reports, what got in the way was a so-called little “pink form” linked to payment for relevant medical attention which the ailing heart patient could not afford, as explained by his common-law wife Vidya Baichu. So they felt compelled to seek alternative medical attention elsewhere but it was too late in coming. 

What followed included ongoing ministerial and diplomatic engagements to objectively assess all the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Sookram. And, hopefully, why there should be no such recurrences.

While there will be critical evaluations of the prevailing management systems within Trinidad and Tobago’s quite expansive and modern health sector to avoid challenges as surfaced in the treatment and death of Mr Sookram, the reality is that in various other Caricom jurisdictions complaints are often voiced about discrimination, or negligence, in the treatment of visiting or non-resident Community nationals.

Such discrimination, or denial of access to even emergency assistance, could extend also to even some accident cases requiring payment for ambulance services. In contrast, in Jamaica and Guyana for example, official policies guarantee non-discrimination in the treatment of Caricom  visitors in need of emergency medical attention. 

In relation to Jamaica, there are, nevertheless, provisions for payments to be made subsequent to medical treatment received in certain categories.

We anxiously await the promised progress on the vital issue of  inclusion of “contingent rights” in the mandated revision of the Caricom Treaty. The challenges facing non-nationals of the Community requiring  emergency medical assistance, either from accidents, falling ill as visitors or while on business are quite worrying.

* Rickey Singh is a  noted Guyana-born, Barbados-based Caribbean journalist.

 
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