Hailing from four different Caribbean countries, with varying ages and professional backgrounds, these six women share a passion to increase the Caribbean’s resilience to the effects of climate on health.
Dr Ayanna Alexander and Jenise Tyson from Trinidad and Tobago, Linnees Green-Baker and Dr Nicole Dawkins-Wright of Jamaica, Lucy Cumberbatch from Guyana, and Najay Parke of Grenada, all comprise the second cohort of the Climate Change and Health Fellowship Training Program. Conducted by the University of the West Indies (UWI), the fellowship is one aspect of the European Union (EU)-funded CARIFORUM five-year project (2020 -2025), aimed at strengthening climate resilient health systems in the Caribbean.
Implemented by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the project brings together five sub-regional partners, working across 16 countries to improve climate, health systems and human resources in the Caribbean. The second cohort follows the successful graduation of six follows from Barbados, Haiti, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Suriname and St Vincent and the Grenadines who completed the 2021-2022 cohort.
The part-time, year-long, blended learning, curriculum-directed fellowship program focuses on creating a cohort of inter-sectorial, multidisciplinary leaders with the necessary skills to turn plans and policy into action. The goal of the program is to develop strong, effective Climate Change leadership among government officials, civil society, communities, and the private sector, championing and implementing the One Health Approach - the coordination and collaboration of human, animal, plant, and environmental health programs. This approach will improve the prevention and preparedness for future health threats arising from the interconnection between humans, animals, and the environment. Those threats include climate change, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), zoonotic diseases, and food safety among others.
This second cohort of passionate, dedicated women have identified two major areas of focus: the need for immediate action and the critical necessity to have a cadre of Caribbean climate and health champions, trained to lead multistakeholder, multidisciplinary actions. The Fellows participate in a three-day introductory kick-off workshop, weekly themed online sessions, and a three-day summative face-face workshop. During the fellowship, fellows will be expected to lead a nationally relevant climate change and health-focused project and workshop/symposium in their home country. Additionally, fellows are also given the opportunity to spend a week in a CARICOM Climate Change regional agency.
“We really need champions for climate change in all sectors in society - not just health… I think that forming linkages across the Caribbean of people who have the same goals and are championing the same causes, building that network, and having people who you can rely on with different experiences is key in tackling climate change issues in health,” emphasized Trinidadian Environmentalist and Senior Research Specialist at the Ministry of Health, Jenise Tyson.
Ms. Tyson went on to note that the decision to apply for the Fellowship was an easy choice because of her love for the outdoors, study of Environmental Management and current occupation in public health. Over the past two years, she had been paying close attention to the linkages between environmental factors and health outcomes and was actively looking for a way to blend her area of study with her work experience. The fellowship was the perfect opportunity to frame climate change and environmental considerations in health planning.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to build a network of leaders and champions across the Caribbean who can not only work together but share information and collaborate on projects because we in the Caribbean face similar environmental conditions and the effects are similar for a lot of the countries,” Jenise insisted.
Professor in Veterinary Virology at The UWI’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and team leader of the Fellowship Programme, Christopher Oura, continues to be excited by the program. He noted: “As we build the program going forward, we will get more fellows trained every year, so we will develop a network of Caribbean climate change and health leaders from multiple countries and sectors, with different areas of expertise, working together and supporting each other to lead the process of change both regionally and nationally.”
Linnese Green-Baker, a Jamaican Environmental Health Specialist with responsibility for Institutional Health, was motivated to act by a presentation on the impact of climate change on the health of Caribbean people, by Dr Michael Taylor of the UWI Mona Campus.
“The health sector has been identified as a significant contributor to climate change. While climate change is not the sole focus of health and well-being, it has far-reaching effects on many areas of life and livelihoods. This fellowship allows us to broaden our perspective and gain knowledge, which we can use to promote progress. Through the partnerships we establish, we can strive to mobilize climate action in our respective countries and persuade those who contribute to climate change to become advocates. We can achieve this by engaging with people on their level and working to change their attitudes,” Linnees said.
Grenadian Najay Parke, Regulatory Economist at the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission, Grenada, joined the second cohort because of her interest in health economics and financing, development and climate change and health. Ms Parke links the impacts of climate to the economy and maintains that climate risks need to be considered, to mitigate detrimental impacts on people and economies.
“We depend on the environment for many things including clean drinking water and air, healthy foods, and a livable climate. If we don’t make these considerations for the impact on the environment or make development projects more climate resilient, then the population would be paying for it in the future—whether it’s their health or in their finances, though rebuilding taxes, if, for example, a building was built that was not climate resilient and had a detrimental impact on the ecosystem or environment, the taxpayers would be responsible for remedying the damage done.” she pointed out.
According to the World Health Organization, by understanding the vulnerability of health care facilities to extreme weather events and investing in climate resilience, catastrophic damage can be avoided, saving money in the long run, and potentially saving lives.
Dr Nicole Dawkins-Wright is a trained Emergency Physician and is the Director of the Disaster Response Management Unit, as well as the focal point for climate change in the Ministry of Health and Wellness in Jamaica. She is passionate about disaster management, however, unlike most of her classmates, she did not initially see climate in her career path. According to her, she probably would have gotten there “eventually”, particularly because Jamaica has faced several weather-related adverse events from cyclones, to flooding to drought.
Effective interventions towards strengthening climate resilience and environmental sustainability often depend on good cross-sectoral action. “The more I got into it, the more I realized that this is probably the most significant thing that we are challenged with. And if we anchor our discussions around what we must do for climate change, it addresses health systems strengthening and our capacity to respond to disaster situations and certainly emergency medical care to optimize outcomes,” she described.
Dr Dawkins-Wright admitted that climate change is complex, and without a solutions-based and systematic approach, one could be rendered immobilized by the sheer magnitude of the problem. “If you’re not careful you can get information overload and be stunned into not knowing what your next move is. The One Health approach is one of those strategies that allows a comprehensive view of what we can do for climate action,” she said.
Though now working at the policy level, Dr. Dawkins-Wright's project will focus on providing information to mobilise action among citizens. She proposes the development of Mobile CHAPP, a climate and Health App, that can provide personalised and adaptive climate and weather services. Her project aim is to assess the readiness of the population for an app that provides these services.
Like Dr Dawkins-Wright, Dr Ayanna Alexander, is a medical doctor from Trinidad who believes that a holistic approach is needed to tackle the health impacts of climate change. She acknowledged: “A healthy population is a resilient population and to be resilient to climate change the public needs to be resilient to the effects of climate change. I think that making the population aware that these two things are intimately connected is why this fellowship is needed. A lot of people don’t think the two have anything to do with each other when they have everything to do with one another.”
Dr. Alexander’s current work amongst vulnerable populations has informed the focus of her climate project. She also noted that there was a dearth of climate and health-related training for medical professionals.
Lucy Cumberbatch is an enthusiastic public health professional who began her career as a laboratory technologist. She has worked as the health promotion coordinator at the Ministry of Health in Guyana for almost 10 years, with a focus on Noncommunicable Disease prevention and control and community engagement.
Ms. Cumberbatch admits that she did not have a clear understanding of the link between climate change and health other than the increase in vector-borne diseases. She set out to develop a better understanding of this area and saw the fellowship as a good opportunity. Lucy currently works with Peace Corps Guyana where she is responsible for the implementation of their adolescent health programme being implemented in collaboration with the Ministries of Health and Education.
By the end of the fellowship, she hopes to develop a manual aimed at improving the capacity of the nurses working with youth at the Ministry of Health’s Youth Friendly Health Services Centres by including a module on climate change and health awareness in their current in-service training programme.
The fellows consider the fellowship to be not only critical but timely. Dr Dawkins- Wright hopes that the fellowship will build a legacy particularly with health care practitioners. “We all have a part to play to actively participate in climate action. The fellowship allows for cultivating the network that is required to lead the conversation, in terms of advocacy, in terms of guidance. In terms of speaking one language and one approach to respond to climate change in the Caribbean. It sets the foundation that we need so that the next generation can build on that… And I want to be able to participate in that foundational aspect so that my children, your children, the next generation is better off because of the work that we do,” Dr Dawkins-Wright said.
The third round of the Fellowship will run from June 2023-May 2024 and will equip six more people with the knowledge and skills to support national Caribbean governments in the inclusion of health elements in the national adaptation plans (NAPs) for Climate Change, and lead in the development and implementation of these plans. The training programme will also prepare the fellows to be able to return to their country with the skills and knowledge to support the process of implementing the change, empower communities and support youth engagement.