Coronavirus | Haiti grapples with its first coronavirus outbreak

5 minutes
Coronavirus | Haiti grapples with its first coronavirus outbreak

People go about their lives in a market as they walk, on 24 May 2021 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. REUTERS Valerie Baeriswyl

For more than a year, Haiti escaped the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and reported rare cases and deaths - a rare break for the poorest country in Americas, which has so often been beset by mishaps.

The COVID 19 treatment centers were closed for lack of patients, Haitians resumed life as normal and the government hesitated to even accept its allotment of free AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX Mechanism due to safety and logistical concerns.

Now though, as some countries have already moved to a serious phase thanks to vaccination campaigns, Haiti is grappling with its first pandemic outbreak.

And it is one of only a few countries worldwide that have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine.

Last month, infections and deaths increased fivefold with the appearance of new variants, in what the Pan American Health Organization called a cautionary tale about how quickly it can happen with this virus.

Officially, Haiti had recorded 15,895 infections and 333 deaths from COVID 19 as of June 5 among its 11 million people, relative case numbers compared to elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But the real data is limited due to low testing rates and doctors say the low numbers are likely much higher. Every day comes news of the deaths of the COVID-19 of well-known figures, like a former senator or head of the pension agency.

And the upward trend could turn into catastrophe according to Laure Adrien, General Director of Haiti's Health Ministry.

Poor sanitation means disease can spread quickly in Haiti. Its slums are densely packed, and its already crowded and unpredictable healthcare system is dependent on fickle donations.

Last week, two of the main hospitals treating COVID 19 patients in Port-au-Prince - Port - Au revealed that they were saturated.

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

Jean 'Bill Pape, a top Haitian infectious disease expert, said the country was now not as prepared as it had been.

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

The new wave also comes amid surging gang violence that hampers the provision of what little healthcare is available.

The St. Luke Hospital warned it may be forced to close its COVID- 19 unit altogether, as violence made it hard to stock up on oxygen at the production site in the Cite Soleil slum.

Already in February Doctors Without Borders opened all but the emergency department of the hospital in Cite Soleil where it last year treated COVID 19 patients.

The wealthy Haitians are medevaced to Florida or the Dominican Republic.

Haitian doctors largely credited their country's apparent resilience to the coronavirus in last year from its relatively young population. Around half of Haitians are under 25 years old.

Many residents dismissed the virus as not a big deal or even doubted its existence. Its importance faded amid a growing political crisis in the wake of unrest and extreme weather associated with climate change.

Thus, when reports reported the last month of the arrival of the new variants as first identified in Britain and Brazil and an uptick in cases, reaction was initially subdued.

Authorities ordered defended precautions like masks in public spaces, suspended a curfew at night and asked year-end graduation ceremonies. Jovenel Moise urged Haitians to drink the unproven herbal tea to ward off the virus, an unproven remedy.

Yet many Haitians continued their usual life as usual, with the authorities unwilling or unable to enforce measures. One mayor of a Port-au Prince district staged a music concert last week attended by thousands not wearing masks.

Druck is though building. Carissa Etienne, PAHO Director said last week there was no time to waste as preventive health infrastructure and additional measures would be decisive to curb transmission of that dwindling.

Companies are starting to require Haitians to only enter in masks and new COVID 19 treatment centers are opening.

We have to open new structures to take more people with respiratory problems to avoid a catastrophe, said Ronald Laroche, a physician who runs a network of high quality health centers and hospitals and opened a COVID 19 center this week.

On Monday, the election council postponed a referendum on a new constitution which had been scheduled for the end of June.

And next week Haiti will receive its first batch of 130,000 doses - COVID 19 vaccines through the COVAX vaccination scheme of the World Health Organization.

Doctors say the challenge for Haitians will be convincing them to actually have the vaccine.

Ronald Jean, 38, Restaurant Manager of Port-au-Prince, said he was for the first time afraid of the virus.

But then do the authorities have to take the vaccine on television first, we'll see how they do, he said. From there, I choose if I want to take that decision or not.

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