June 19, 2021

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FEATURE | The coronavirus wave takes Haiti by surprise, which has yet to start vaccinations

In this file photo a nurse attends a Covid-19 patient at Doctors Without Borders Drouillard hospital in Cite Soleil, Haiti on June 3, 2020. (Pierre Michel Jean / AFP)

  • As countries move towards post-pandemic, Haiti is now just grappling with its first major outbreak.
  • It is one of the few countries that has not administered a single shot of the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Haiti has recorded 15,895 coronavirus cases and 333 deaths, but doctors say the numbers could be much higher.

For more than a year, Haiti has escaped the worst ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, reporting few cases and casualties, a rare respite for the poorest country in the Americas, which has so often been besieged by misfortune.

Covid-19 treatment centers have closed due to lack of patients, Haitians have resumed normal life, and the government has hesitated even to accept its allocation of free AstraZeneca vaccines through the UN-backed Covax mechanism due to health problems. safety and logistics.

Now, however, as some countries are already entering a post-pandemic phase thanks to vaccination campaigns, Haiti is grappling with its first major outbreak.

And it is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to administer a single dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Last month, infections and deaths increased more than fivefold following the arrival of new variants, in what the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) called a “tale of how fast things can change with this virus. “.

Officially, Haiti had registered 15,895 infections and 333 deaths from Covid-19 as of June 5 among its 11 million people, a relatively low number of cases compared to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, data is limited due to low test rates, and doctors say the real numbers are likely much higher. Every day there are reports of deaths from Covid-19 of well-known people, such as a former senator or the head of the pension institution.

And the upward trend could turn out to be “catastrophic”, according to Laure Adrien, director general of Haiti’s ministry of health.

Poor sanitation conditions mean the disease can spread rapidly in Haiti.

Its slums are densely crowded and its already overwhelmed and chaotic healthcare system depends on fickle donations.

haiti, sanitation

An informal settlement in Cite Soleil. (Photo by Alpeyrie / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Last week, two of the leading hospitals treating Covid-19 patients in the capital Port-au-Prince announced they were saturated.

“We are overwhelmed with patients,” said Marc Edson Augustin, medical director of St. Luke Hospital.

Jean ‘Bill’ Pape, a leading Haitian infectious disease expert, said the country is now not as prepared as it was.

“We need to reopen new centers to increase the number of beds dedicated to Covid,” said Pape.

The new wave also comes amid growing gang violence that is hindering the provision of what little health care is available.

St. Luke Hospital warned on Monday that it may have to shut down its Covid-19 unit entirely as violence was making it difficult to stock up on oxygen at the Cite Soleil slum production site.

Already in February, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had closed everything except the emergency room of the Cite Soleil hospital where it treated Covid-19 patients last year.

The wealthiest Haitians are paying to be transferred to Florida or the Dominican Republic.

gang of haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Cite Soleil slum is known for being the battleground between gangs that settle accounts and against the UN troops who have tried to pacify the area on numerous occasions. A member of a gang connected to the LP Street gang is showing his gun; inside a hidden parking lot also used for smuggling and other illicit trafficking. (Photo by Alpeyrie / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

It is not a priority

Haitian doctors have largely attributed their country’s apparent resilience to the coronavirus last year to its relatively young population. About half of Haitians are under the age of 25.

Many locals dismissed the virus as not a big deal or even doubted its existence. Its significance has vanished amid a growing humanitarian crisis as a result of political unrest and extreme weather conditions associated with climate change.

So when news emerged last month about the arrival of the new variants first identified in Britain and Brazil and an increase in cases, the reaction was initially contained.

Authorities have imposed new precautions such as masks in public spaces, instituted a night curfew and suspended end-of-year graduation ceremonies.

President Jovenel Moise urged Haitians to drink medicinal tea to ward off the virus, an unproven remedy.

Yet many Haitians continued to live as usual, with the authorities unwilling or unable to enforce the measures. Last week a mayor of a Port-au-Prince district organized a music concert which was attended by thousands of people without masks.

The pressure is building, however.

PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said last week that “there is no time to waste” as further health capabilities and preventative measures to curb transmission would be “decisive”.

Companies are starting to require Haitians to enter only wearing masks and are opening new Covid-19 treatment centers.

“We need to open new facilities to accommodate more patients with breathing difficulties to avoid a catastrophe,” said Ronald Laroche, a doctor who runs a network of low-cost health centers and hospitals and opened a Covid-19 center this week.

On Monday, the electoral council postponed the referendum on the new constitution which had been set for the end of June.

And next week, Haiti is expected to receive its first batch – 130,000 doses – of Covid-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization’s Coax vaccination scheme.

Doctors say the challenge now will be to get Haitians to actually have the vaccine.

Ronald Jean, 38, a restaurant manager in Port-au-Prince, said he was afraid of the virus for the first time.

But “first the authorities should get the vaccine on television, we’ll see how they do it,” he said.

“And then I’ll decide whether to take it or not.”