Dr Antony Stewart is Chair of the Haiti Support Group. He is a historian with extensive knowledge on the history of Haitian public health, international medical interventions in Haiti, and public health crises past and present, including HIV/AIDS and cholera. As coronavirus begins to take hold, he gives us his take on the spread of the disease in Haiti.
Dr Eve Hayes is Treasurer of the Haiti Support Group. A specialist in relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Eve works as a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool.
Haiti has recorded its first coronavirus death with 21 confirmed infections in the country.
Worryingly in neighbouring Dominican Republic, the virus continues to spread rapidly. Yesterday, the Public Health Ministry recorded 82 deaths and 1745 total cases. As the situation worsens by the day, concerns are building over the island’s increasing vulnerability through exposure to the outbreak.
Crisis is looming on the island and is only set to worsen by the day.
Chronic Underfunding and No Protections: Why Coronavirus would Spell Disaster for Haiti
Haiti has long struggled to build an adequate healthcare infrastructure. A revolving door of interventions from abroad – the vast majority of which have involved top-down, short-term projects with little focus on legacy – have undermined efforts to build a coordinated public health system. Years of chronic underfunding of institutions and hospitals have resulted in a system that leaves the vast majority of Haitians unprotected and lacking the most basic of equipment needed to fight the disease.
For decades, Haiti has also struggled with a brain drain, seeing many of its best medical professionals head abroad in search of more stable employment, improved working conditions and better pay. These factors have left the country over-reliant on outside assistance for healthcare, rendering it especially vulnerable during healthcare emergencies.
The recent cholera epidemic – introduced by United Nations “peacekeepers” – is a painful example of how deadly a disease can become if it gains a foothold in the country.
That epidemic killed close to 10,000 Haitians, and infected 100,000.
Protests and Criticism of Government Policy
In recent months, Haitian healthcare workers have staged numerous walkouts, protesting a lack of essential supplies and abysmal sanitary conditions. Unsurprisingly, hospitals in Port-au-Prince are reporting they are utterly unprepared to face the looming pandemic. Medical staff have limited access to protective equipment, and quarantine rooms for patients are nowhere near fit for purpose. Consequently, some doctors are refusing to come into work and risk their lives in such conditions.
Last week, ongoing worries about the burgeoning crisis reached their peak. On the 27th March, the head of Bernard Mevs Hospital, Dr. Jerry Bitar, was kidnapped on his way to work whilst helping to prepare the hospital for Covid-19.
To the great concern of many civil society groups, the government has still not taken enough steps to properly deal with the crisis.
This week, Le Forum patriotique de Papaye (FPP) lamented:
“…nothing is being done to prepare and protect health workers in public hospitals.”
Where policies have been put in place, Haitian groups have been quick to raise questions about their feasibility. For example, the government has shut factories, but has not ensured laid-off workers still receive pay. The government has asked people to avoid crowds, but still has not stopped issuing new identity cards, resulting in long queues and drawing dozens to its offices.
Time to stop the spread of Covid-19 on the island is running out.
Many Haitians will watch like hawks, knowing that it is very unlikely any money promised by international agencies will ever actually reach those who need it most.
Barbados – which just yesterday also reported its first coronavirus death – had a shipment of ventilators donated to its government seized by the Trump administration. The implications of these actions for the Caribbean are dire. With fragile healthcare systems and limited medical supplies, Haiti and its neighbours will find it a great challenge to tackle the outbreak.
This situation will lead to another battle. Not only to fight the virus, but also to confront the global powers who will inevitably intercept smaller nations in their struggle for much-needed resources.