Zika virus threatens Puerto Rican economy

by | May 19, 2016 | Economy, Headlines | Comments

For Puerto Rico, mosquitoes are no longer just a pesky insect. The Zika virus has consistently gained media coverage since the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert warning about the disease one year ago. The virus, which is transmitted by two types of mosquitoes, is present in all but 7 U.S. states.  Symptoms in adults are usually minimal, but infected individuals are at an increased risk for Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can be fatal.  If a pregnant woman contracts the virus, her child may suffer life-altering disabilities.  Microcephaly, or small brain, is one of the more devastating effects of the Zika virus.  Children can also suffer other conditions affecting brain size and structure.  

And no where in the United States is the virus felt more than in Puerto Rico. The number of cases acquired in Puerto Rico alone, outnumber that of the entire United States. In the midst of rainy season, the number of cases in Puerto Rico is likely to peak in the upcoming months. Roughly one-quarter of the island’s inhabitants are predicted to contract the virus within the year, which has already begun to spread to the mainland.

The Puerto Rican government is indebted over $72 billion, forcing spending cuts in the territory’s Department of Health. The decision will prove counterproductive as the Zika virus becomes a larger threat to the island. The resulting inadequate health care is more likely to cost the government money than the health spending cuts are to reverse the debt. It is evident the only solution to avert a Zika crisis and further economic downfall is to stabilize public health care in Puerto Rico.

The current economic state in Puerto Rico is anything but reassuring. The unemployment rate is now 12%, and 45% of Puerto Ricans are living below the poverty line. Mimicking the European “brain drain” of the 1960s, young workers are moving to the continental U.S. to secure better jobs and escape the threat of the Zika virus. As if the healthcare system wasn’t taking enough of a hit, spending cuts to education have forced 80 public schools to close, and the island now has a higher sales tax than all the U.S. states.

The Department of Health acts much like the Center for Disease Control for the islands. However, with a budget cut of over $100 million, the department likely will not be able to work at full efficiency in stopping the spread of Zika. In addition, the integrity of Medicaid and Medicare are compromised due to slow payments. Healthcare facilities are being forced to shut down, and some healthcare providers are forced to relocate to the mainland.

Democrats in the U.S. Congress are hoping to utilize the Public Health Emergency Fund, for only the third time in history, to fight the Zika virus in Puerto Rico. The Public Health Emergency Preparedness Act would provide $5 billion a year to the fund to fight disease outbreaks such as Zika, or the recent Ebola outbreak.

As of April, 2016, more than 700 cases and 1 Zika-related death have been confirmed on the island. By this time next year, nearly 1 million additional cases are anticipated. Predictions indicate that as many as 9,000 pregnant women may contract the virus if not properly protected. All this happens as the state of Mississippi received 10 times more federal Medicaid funding, when Puerto Rico’s population outnumbers the state by 500,000. Even more devastating, Puerto Rico will have to revoke medical insure from hundreds of thousands of residents in 2017 due to insufficient funding. Without insurance, parents will be unable to pay for the special needs of children with microcephaly.

Puerto Rico recently missed a $399 million payment to creditors, and have another $2 billion payment in July. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, instructed lawmakers to create a rescue plan. The Obama Administration and the Congressional Republican lawmakers are working together to assist the island in maintaining a functioning economy. Pending legislation in the House of Representatives will allow for the creation of an oversight board, whose executive decisions will hopefully reverse the economic state of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico has no voting representatives in Congress, meaning the individuals that know the island best have zero say in the recovery plan.  An oversight board is not going to be the panacea for Puerto Rico. Unless we want another Flint, Michigan on our hands, the Puerto Rican government, and the mainland government, need to redirect attention to the public health system, by means of the financial system.

Tracking Zika has not been easy. The lack of symptoms makes it hard to detect, treat, and prevent the virus from spreading. Medical testing comes with a hefty price tag, and Puerto Rico will likely need to provide 5 times the amount of tests it currently provides. The government is also burdened with educating the public on how to protect themselves, and controlling the mosquito population.

President Obama proposed a $1.9 billion funding package for Puerto Rico. Even with the supplement, the already enacted spending cuts will result in an overall worsening of the island’s economic state. The only solution is to end the austerity cuts, and promote equality for Puerto Rico. Unless the territory is given comparable benefits to a U.S. state, there is no good prospect for Puerto Rico.