Today the Caribbean nation of 11 million, often described as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is bracing for another potential disaster: the novel coronavirus.
To date, only five people in Haiti have died of the covid-19 disease and 72 cases have been confirmed. With a mere 439 tests conducted, those figures are undoubtedly low. Meanwhile, in the past week, fears of a major outbreak have surged as thousands of Haitian migrant workers flood home across the border from the Dominican Republic, which has reported over 5,000 cases and more than 250 deaths.
“Urgent action at the border is needed,” tweeted Giuseppe Loprete, who heads the Haiti office of the International Organization for Migration. With few public hospitals functioning, news reports have described private clinics and health centers in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, racing to prepare isolation wards and makeshift personal protection kits.
Haitians have long lived in a state of perpetual emergency. Once enslaved under French colonial rule, then kept in poverty by a series of domestic dictators until the 1980s, they still struggle to survive. Only half the population has access to health care or drinking water; the per capita income of under $900 is on par with Eritrea and Burkina Faso.
Somehow, though, people carry on with a resilience born of spiritual belief, resourcefulness and joie de vivre in circumstances that would sap the will of many.
During the 1980s and 1990s, I made numerous trips to Haiti as a correspondent for the Boston Globe. I saw how a blend of beliefs combated people’s despair, with Christian services promising redemption and voodoo rituals summoning dead spirits. I saw creativity flourish amid dire need, with impromptu musical concerts and village houses painted bright pink or blue.
I saw desperate poverty everywhere: children with hair discolored by malnutrition, hospitals where patients lay on pads in the corridors and relatives begged for money to buy medicines, families crammed into one-room shacks with rain pouring through the roofs.
It was an era of constant political turmoil, with danger in the air. The army staged a military coup, a dictator fled, and a radical slum priest rose to power on a wave of protests against the wealthy elite. I was nearly shot by a drunk policeman in the capital; threatened by machete-wielding militiamen after a rural massacre; and almost trampled by a mob protesting outside a prison, until a stranger grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety.
And yet I felt welcomed by almost everyone I met. In one village, a gaunt farmer wrapped an egg and a mango for me to take as gifts. In the fetid urban shantytown of La Saline, I met a tailor whose only possession was an old sewing machine. This dignified man invited me to community soccer games, with plastic jugs substituting for balls. He invited me to his daughter’s baptism in a church yard, and to this day I remember the light streaming down through the trees.
“Haitians have faced one disaster after another. But they are determined to celebrate life, because they never know how long it will last,” said Jeff Liteman, a longtime friend and retired U.S. diplomat who was stationed in Port-au-Prince at the time. He noted that there is an “uglier side” to Haitian society, where violence is rampant. “People do terrible things,” he said, “but the spirit that pervades is to partake of life as if they were diving into a feast.”
In the years since then, Haiti’s hopes for progress have been repeatedly dashed. A series of elected governments have proved inept, corrupt or repressive. Poverty has risen and the economy has stagnated. The country has never fully recovered from the 2010 earthquake, which left hundreds of thousands homeless and was followed by an epidemic of cholera, which killed thousands more.
Last month, when the first cases of covid-19 appeared, the government declared a state of emergency, but many people ignored it. Amid an ongoing spate of gang violence and political unrest, the director of a private hospital was kidnapped, reportedly for ransom. But last week, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe suggested Haiti had managed the virus better than wealthier countries.
“I can’t say I have 100 corpses, like all those developed countries and their big infrastructure,” Jouthe said at a press briefing April 14. He insisted the ban on public gatherings had succeeded, even as people continued “dancing [and] having block parties.” He announced the reopening of the local textile industry, which stitches T-shirts for export and provides 58,000 workers with rare salaried jobs.
But Haiti’s hospitals are still woefully equipped, with more than 90 percent of medical services funded by foreign or private charities. If the virus surges, there are fewer than 60 ventilators in the country to handle it.
“To tell you the truth, we are not prepared at all,” one Haitian respiratory therapist told the BBC last week.
On social media, the specter of covid-19 has aroused a heated debate between Haiti’s detractors and defenders. One Facebook post claimed that the country is ungovernable and needs another “dictatorship or slavery.” Another retorted that Haiti’s “obituary has been written several times” but added that, like a phoenix, “the Haitian will always rise from his/her ashes. We will survive.”
But Haitians have already endured more than their share of natural and man-made calamities. I pray that, somehow, this one passes them by.