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Forgetting Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico made headlines after Hurricane Maria hit the Island last September. Millions of Americans were surprised to learn that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Awareness of these facts, according to polls in the States, went from less than half to 76% within a month after the hurricane.

But new stories replaced Puerto Rico’s plight in the headlines. Puerto Rico struggled for months with lack of drinking water, lack of electricity, impassable roads, and unlivable homes. Finally, a Harvard study was released which claimed that deaths in Puerto Rico resulting largely from disruption of health care could have topped 5,000.

There were some headlines. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR — many news outlets reported on the study. However, James Downie at the Washington Post  checked a different metric, with startling results.

“When the Harvard study was released Tuesday, the big three cable news networks covered the story for 30 minutes — combined,” Downie reported. “They covered Roseanne Barr’s tweets and her show’s cancellation for more than 10 hours.”

The Harvard study wasn’t the first indication that Puerto Rico was facing a healthcare crisis. The Kaiser Family Foundation published a six month checkup in April reporting that hospitals and clinics still did not have stable electricity, and that access to health care was still limited. Lack of power for dialysis machines, oxygen machines, and even refrigeration of insulin for diabetics created a dangerous situation. An increase in depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder was not met by increased mental health resources. And the underlying problems of unequal health care funding were not being solved, said the foundation, by emergency healthcare funding.

This study didn’t show up in national headlines or in the national news.

There are new articles on Puerto Rico in today’s headlines. Deadly bacteria outbreaks are being reported by CNN after analysis of death records recently released by the Puerto Rico government. Leptospirosis was reported last fall, last winter, and this spring. It is good that national attention is being given now, but it is also telling that this problem can be treated as surprising news at this point.

“The U.S. has a long history of failing Puerto Rico,” Downie concludes. “That’s unlikely to change until the island is granted statehood and can advocate itself in Congress instead of begging others for help. But however long that takes to happen, the media should not wait to value Puerto Ricans’ lives the same as those of all other Americans.”

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