British Columbia

Irma exposing the risks of going to a Caribbean medical school, says SFU prof

After a group of Canadians studying at an expensive medical school in the Caribbean were stranded by Hurricane Irma, SFU prof Valorie Crooks asks who should be responsible for saving them?

Who is responsible when you choose to go to medical school on a tiny island that is destroyed by a hurricane?

A man walks on a street covered in debris after Hurricane Irma passed over St. Maarten on Sept. 8, 2017. (MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Stranded Canadian students finally received the news they were hoping for Monday with the announcement the Canadian government was sending a WestJet airplane to help evacuate Canadians from St. Maarten, the tiny Dutch-French island nation in the Caribbean.

Approximately 30 Canadian students attending the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in St. Maarten had taken refuge in a classroom for almost a week after Hurricane Irma devastated the island.

Approximately 30 Canadians attending the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine sheltered in a classroom for a week after Hurricane Irma hit. (AUC)

Some of the group took to social media to appeal for help and criticize the Canadian government for its slow response in helping them.

"We're literally the last ones," said an unidentified Canadian student in a video posted to Facebook. "People from Venezuela — a communist country — they got their people out.

"But SFU professor and health researcher Valorie Crooks says their plight raises a lot of questions about ethics, privilege and the responsibility the Canadian government owes to those who choose to study in the Caribbean." 

Who's responsible?

"This is part of the controversy about these schools: can these really small island nations with limited resources — at times resources so limited that they have a hard time sustaining their own citizens —  should they be hosting these medical schools?" 

Crooks says there are as many as 70 medical schools operating in the Caribbean, as well as hundreds of medical clinics competing for Canadian clients.

France's President Emmanuel Macron is in the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, where 10 people were killed on the French side and four on the Dutch. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)

She said the two types of businesses are attracted by low regulatory barriers that make it easy to set up and operate. 

But a lack of regulation often goes hand in hand with low levels of safety infrastructure and resources.

Wei Wu, whose husband Bo Peng is a Canadian permanent resident entering his first year at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, posted that Global Affairs Canada refused to put Peng on its evacuation list because he wasn't a Canadian citizen.

Wu told CBC News Peng's treatment wasn't fair because the couple work and pay taxes in Canada.

"These students are feeling like the government is not doing enough for them but who is the government answerable to in this situation?" asked Crooks, pointing out that Canada provides generous development and medical aid to many Caribbean nations.

"The students have exercised their right as consumers to purchase [medical school] services abroad. Are they any more entitled to a more enhanced or more rapid response than those people that the Canadian government has already committed to assisting?"

The problem with 'offshoring'

As a specialist in the "untracked, untraced and unregulated mobilities" between Canada and the Caribbean, Crooks says the negative and often costly implications of offshore medical businesses only come to light when things go wrong.

"In this case, it's a hurricane but with regards to medical tourism we hear about it when someone returns with medical complications," she said. "These are the kinds of impacts we need to think about with these offshoring sectors."

Crooks says most of the medical school located in the Caribbean are headquartered in Canada or the United States. 

"Should [the students] be calling on the Canadian government to help them as Canadian citizens? Or should they be calling on those who operate and financially benefit  from the schools?"

In the end, the Canadian students were evacuated thanks to Global Affairs Canada.

On Monday evening, the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine posted that it had managed to get another 100 students and faculty off the island on a charter flight.

With files from Roshini Nair