Visiting the US territory as he supports its campaign for debt relief, Lew said the austerity being forced on the government is leaving it short of staff and funds and vulnerable to a strong outbreak of Zika.
Lew painted a scenario in which Zika exposure spreads “and hospitals are losing personnel and unable to get enough of the drugs they need to treat patients; and in the areas where mosquitoes breed, there’s no money to deal with mosquito eradication.”
“Those are very important realities — it’s not a future problem — it is something happening now,” he said.
Zika has already been shown to transmit via local mosquitoes on the Caribbean island, and one death has been reported.
But the government is being squeezed by $70 billion in debts it cannot pay; it failed last week to make payments on $400 million in bonds.
The island’s creditors so far have not agreed on any debt rescheduling deal, and meanwhile it is being blocked by the US Congress from seeking a bankruptcy-type resolution that would force all creditors to come to the table and accept a writedown.
With the island already starved for investment and tourists cancelling visits, last week the economy was dealt another blow when Major League baseball cancelled a series of games there when players expressed fears over the disease.