A combination of natural disasters and political instability looks set to be a recipe for a COVID-19 catastrophe in the Caribbean island of Haiti, writes Taylor Edgar

After last year enduring an extended lockdown because of political turmoil which only ended in December, Haiti is now bracing itself again. A decade on from the 2010 earthquake which left 200,000 dead, this Caribbean island is slowly beginning to fear the worst over COVID-19 despite assurances on TV by the government.

Island entrepreneur Any Hyacinthe Lanauze is quick to credit the government with swiftly closing the border with the Dominican Republic, partially closing the island’s airport and prohibiting large gatherings.

However, these measures have not been matched by an equally vigorous effort in the health care system or COVID-19 education. Any says: “The country doesn’t have a formal response centre for COVID-19 patients. Nor proper medical personnel trained to assist the patients if they decide to go to the hospital. Many people in Haiti either do not have access, or if they do, the hospitals are without nurses and doctors. People often have to travel long distances to get proper care.”

Speaking from her home, 40-year-old Any told welovestornoway.com: “Neither the government nor anybody else in Haiti has a proper way of knowing the truth about COVID-19. They have thermometers to see if someone has a fever and that’s about it. They say that people will be able to get tested for the virus. But this is yet to be seen. We as a nation, hope that the government will do better than what we are hearing but not seeing right now.”

The mother-of-three who owns a school and runs an events business is fearful that the Haitian government is merely copying the COVID-19 moves of the US government rather than determining a solution to suit Haiti.  “The government,” asserts Any, “are not connected with the reality of the local people. They need to make local decisions for us. In some cities, in the remote countryside,  people don’t even know about the virus, nor will they know how to take proper precautions against it.  The government has many committees in place to inform the communities but with little or not enough actions.”

She is alarmed, too, at an early reopening of the island, an idea which appears to be getting promoted by the Americans. Comments Any: “One of my main concerns is that our government is about to cave in to the pressure by the United States to reopen the airport and the borders. They say the curve is getting flat to the point that we should not worry about the virus anymore, but we have no certainty of that. Already a lot of people have purchased their tickets for the next flight to Haiti and knowing how fragile my country is, to me, it is depressing. I think that it is when the pandemic is going to knock on our doors because we won’t be able to stop them from coming home. But we won’t have the capacity to know what they are going to bring with them.”

Haiti and Haitian communities across the globe have been petitioning the government not to reopen for business. They have called on the government to keep the borders and airport closed as long as possible. In the absence of a properly funded healthcare system on Haiti, many on the island are turning to traditional medicines to boost their immune systems. These herbal-based remedies are credited by some to help fight diseases such as Zika virus and Chikungunya fever.

“I am not saying that it is the answer, but I have known a few Haitians in Florida that got great results after they got infected with the coronavirus. Neem leaves and glove tea helps to maintain the immune system and azithromycin have been beneficial for them.  But everyone is different, and it is always safe to see a doctor before taking any medication,” Any points out.

It is little wonder that islanders are turning to traditional medicine for treatment. According to Any, the island is not remotely close to having a proper well-equipped hospital with trained staff.  “Sad to say, but our government officials never focus on this issue because they always think that they could get medical treatment in other developed countries."

COVID-19 is now teaching governments around the world that they have the power to lead and must do so correctly and set in place a decent infrastructure for the people who gave them this power.

Haitians, however, are no strangers to chaos. Or lockdowns. Compared to the four-month lockdown last year, this COVID-19 lockdown is very calm. “Haiti is not new to this procedure, I had seen worse than the COVID-19 lockdown from September to early December in 2019,” explains Any.

“All we had was a phone to ask our friends and family how their neighbourhood was as the flames, and the smell of the tires in the barricades were burning. We couldn’t even go out for groceries without fearing getting attacked by the protestors or getting caught in a crossfire. Since this government took office, it got out of hand a few times in February for ten days,  in July for a month then in September for two solid months of fear and total chaos. So many Haitians had to leave the country, and many families got separated for that reason.”

The result is a people that are exhausted by turmoil and reeling from the economic consequences of a pandemic shut down in a country with no unemployment benefit. COVID-19 appears inevitably set to be their next catastrophe.

So far only a handful of Haitians have died of COVID-19 and 72 cases have been confirmed. However, with only around 500 tests conducted, the real number of infections is undoubtedly higher. This is especially likely after migrant workers flooded across the border from the Dominican Republic, which has reported over 5,000 cases and more than 250 deaths.

Haiti is a sovereign Caribbean island and the population is 11 million. The official languages are Creole and French. Haiti is often described as the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Only half the population has access to running water or health care. The per capita income of less than $900 pitches Haiti at the same level as Eritrea and Burkina Faso.