Acquired in part by Britain in 1672 and the rest by the United States in 1917, the Virgin Islands are a semi-autonomous group of about 90 Caribbean islands of varying size about 50 miles east of Puerto Rico, administered as the territories of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and United States Virgin Islands (USVI). The islands are home to booming year-round tourism industry, attracting visitors every year to its 200 miles of beaches and over 7,000 acres of scenic national parkland. For the islands’ 150,000 residents, though, their expected 79 years of life are more complicated than a brief sojourn in a tropical paradise. Living in the Caribbean presents its own set of unique challenges, but the resilient population continues to prosper in spite of them. Here are 10 facts about life expectancy in the Virgin Islands.
10 Facts About Life Expectancy in the Virgin Islands
- The islands are vulnerable to hurricanes and their remote location makes repair efforts difficult. While recent hurricanes have not been a leading cause of death in the Virgin Islands, their effects have harshly impacted the locals’ quality of life. In June 2018, NPR reported that relief crews were still working in the islands to restore power and water after the devastating back-to-back Category 5 hurricane Irma and Category 4 hurricane Maria that tore through the Caribbean in September 2017.
- Residents have some serious concerns about health care: For a 2012 study published in the Journal of the Association of Black Nursing Faculty, nursing and sociology professionals conducted focus groups in the Virgin Islands to “discover how residents of the United States Virgin Islands think about their health, health status, health problems, and the quality of the health care delivery system.” Common concerns shared by the focus groups included limited resources and high costs of insurance, co-pay and services. Because of this, many Virgin Islanders are forced to either go to great lengths to obtain sufficient healthcare, such as traveling to Puerto Rico or the mainland United States, or forgo seeking medical treatment altogether.
- Infant mortality rates are higher than in the mainland United States: The CIA World Factbook states that the Virgin Islands experience an average of 7.7 infant mortalities out of 1,000 live births, almost 75 percent more than the United States despite its status as a territory of the latter. Data indicating the exact cause of this statistic is unavailable, though it can likely be attributed to the great difficulty of health care access at one of the only two hospitals servicing the three United States Virgin Islands, in tandem with the territory’s inflated medical prices. Fortunately, this figure still places the Virgin Islands firmly in the bottom 30 percent of countries by highest infant mortality rates.
- The leading causes of death are not too different from the United States’: In 2017, the Institution for Health Metrics and Evaluation determined that despite the Virgin Islands’ issues with inclement weather and access to resources, the leading causes of death (heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer) are all similar to those of the US. These issues, with the exception of cancer, can largely be traced to poor local nutritional practices and a lack of proper dietary and physical education on the islands.
- The islands are poor: Ranking 181st in GDP purchasing power parity, the Virgin Islands are almost in the bottom 20 percent of world economies. The internet lacks recent data on poverty in the USVI, the latest available data put over one in five families below the poverty line. With health care so difficult to access and most goods and food imported and sold at a much higher markup price, this forces many families to choose between putting food on the table and seeking medical attention.
- Tourism and trade are the Virgin Islands’ primary economic activities, contributing to low wages and a low standard of living: Due to its limitations in climate and space, the agriculture and manufacturing sections of the Virgin Islands are economically marginal. As a result, tourism and trade account for nearly 47 percent of the USVI’s GDP and most Virgin Islanders work low-wage service, hospitality and transportation jobs, making it difficult to afford commodities like medicine and food that must be imported rather than produced domestically. Fortunately, NGOs work to make necessities more affordable for Virgin Islanders. One such NGO, Patient Assist VI, connects struggling patients with affordable prescription drugs and medical care they otherwise would not receive.
- Murder rates are high, but they are decreasing: In 2017, a study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime determined the USVI had the fourth-highest murder rate in the world, citing 52 reported murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The FBI said that in 2016, the USVI had the highest murder rate per capita in the US and its territories. However, according to The St. Thomas Source, a local publication, only half that amount has occurred in 2019 by mid-September. Most of these murders are concentrated in the urbanized islands St. Thomas and St. Croix, where NGOs such as Project Promise work to guide at-risk youth and tackle the underlying causes of crime and violence in the islands, providing local middle and high schoolers with tutors, life coaches and opportunities to get involved in volunteering and extracurricular education. Since 2015, Project Promise has renovated playgrounds, planted gardens and provided children with school supplies and access to health care to give the children of the Virgin Islands a brighter future.
- Despite economic challenges, the Virgin Islands have a working infrastructure: Though hurricanes Irma and Maria, shattered the islands’ infrastructure, it has since recovered and provided power and water to most of its residents. All of the islands have access to electricity and access to clean drinking water via local ocean water desalination plants, thanks to federal aid, local reconstruction efforts and the thriving partnership between locals and volunteer organizations such as All Hands and Hearts, which labored for 18 months to restore homes and rebuild a dozen schools in the wake of Irma and Maria.
- Life expectancy in the Virgin Islands is higher than in neighboring areas: According to the World Bank, the Virgin Islands have had a higher life expectancy than its neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America. While the gap has closed significantly over the last 60 years, the Virgin Islands still boasts a life expectancy of 79, four more years than the region’s average of 75.
- The Virgin Islands ranks in the top 20 percent on global life expectancy lists: The CIA World Factbook states that the Virgin Islands rank at 49th place for average life expectancy, outranking many of the world’s countries and territories by a significant margin.
These 10 facts about life expectancy in the Virgin Islands demonstrate a pattern of hardship and resilience, while also highlighting the need for more self-sustaining local industry and heavy investment in hurricane preparation to protect its residents and improve their quality of life.
– Calvin Lemieux