Op-Ed: Let’s Build Healthy and Peaceful Communities in the Virgin Islands

Children participate in St. Croix’s Kids’ Duathlon in 2012. (Submitted photo)

Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s trusted advisors, came up with a strategy for achieving unethical and immoral goals: flood the zone. Do so many things at once that nobody can keep up with them. In a lot of ways, it worked for them.

If you think of the year 2020, it was a year that flooded the zone with epochal events. The big five: a (we hope) once in a century pandemic, economic collapse, bills for social injustice coming due, vast climate change disasters, and an election in which a demented president and his enablers would not accept defeat.

The zone has definitely been flooded. And there is a widespread desire to get back to “normal,” while we still have a living memory of what “normal” was. It now looks as if that can happen sometime after the middle of the year 2021. And it will be a very good thing.  What will not be a good thing will be for people everywhere, especially decision-makers, to take a deep breath and think they can – or should – go back to business as usual, their version of normal.

The pandemic has revealed the deepest divisions and the greatest weaknesses in our society, whether on the mainland or in the territory. And nobody knows how the next months and years are going to play out. But one thing does seem to be very clear: What did not work in the past is definitely not going to work in the future, at least for a large majority of the people. Let’s just take a single area, what is known as “health care.”

To the extent that Virgin Islanders take cues from the mainland discussion, that discussion is almost never about “health.” It is almost always about health insurance, who will pay, what they will pay for, and, most important, who are the ones who should be blessed to have health insurance? In American culture today, this last one often revolves around the simple question: why should I pay for someone else’s health care? Or, if “they” get it, that means less for me.

After the never-resolved insurance question, there is the hospital-as-health care issue. This one often ignores the notion that the hospital is, by definition, a symbol of health care failure. That’s followed by another big favorite, pharmaceuticals, what they do or don’t do, and who should pay for them, along with, what about people who need them, but can’t afford them?

Finally, from time-to-time, some do-gooder mentions public health, mental health, community health centers and primary care. But these are far down the line, especially with respect to their revenue generating potential.

Here is why this discussion, especially in a place like the Virgin Islands, with large numbers of low-income citizens, is all wrong. Going back to what has been “normal” is a totally losing proposition. There are always going to be too many unhealthy people and too few dollars and “providers” to keep up. This is especially true with an aging population that is living longer but not healthy. The stresses on our existing non-system are just going to get worse over time.

The discussion that should take place revolves around a simple, fundamental question: what do we need to do to build healthy communities with healthy people? To ask this question opens the door to understanding the big challenges and changes involved, starting with what we are accustomed to with respect to sedentary “lifestyles,” the foods that we eat, acceptance of high levels of violence as normal as long as “they’re killing each other,” the television lobotomized message that there is a pill for everything, and a range of the consequences of extreme inequality, racial injustice, poverty and financial insecurity.

What is interesting about this list is that “fixing” these things – focusing on building healthy and peaceful communities – costs lots less than not fixing them. And, there is a starting point. It is having public discussions about what the healthy and peaceful communities that people desire would look like. How will they be different from the way we live today?

This is the pathway to a different – and better – mental model. In the film “Cool Hand Luke,” Luke keeps trying to escape from the prison camp. When he’s inevitably caught, they beat him up and make him repeatedly dig holes and then fill them up. At the end, the warden comes out with a simple message: “Luke, you’re gonna get your mind right.” The discussion of healthy communities is the first step in getting our minds right.

Once we have all gotten our minds right, the hard part starts: getting people to change habits that are deeply ingrained, supported by powerful commercial interests, and that all seem “normal.” Here we bump up against another challenge mentioned by the warden in his attempts to get Luke’s mind right. After another Luke escape attempt and beating, the warden says, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Figuring out and communicating a clear message that runs counter to virtually every (unhealthy) commercial on television and the internet should be an interesting project for talented Virgin Islanders.

Like most movements, the idea here is to make being an active part of a healthy and peaceful community the thing to do. And, even better, the cool thing to do. And, even better than that, making the Virgin Islands the model for healthy communities in the region and beyond. Then it is really the thing to do.

Flash forward. December 31, 2021: The Virgin Islands Source headline: “Territory Leads Nation In Moving Toward Building Healthy and Peaceful Communities.” The article goes on to describe big positive changes in nutrition, dramatic reductions in violence, improved school performance and an explosion of physical activity that can be a model for many communities.

It could happen. Step one: get our minds right. Then act and make all of the right things, the things to do.

Editor’s note: Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as a planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.