As of Thursday, March 26, Haiti had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19. The Ministry of Health is tracking the location of confirmed and suspected cases and providing other updates here. As with everywhere the virus has appeared, the principal advice is social distancing and taking extra steps to ensure that hands remain clean. Handwashing stations have popped up all over - as potable, running water is in short supply in many parts of the country. Schools, churches and most businesses have been directed to close. It is difficult for people working in the informal economy to simply stay home, of course, because this means no income at all. Markets and street vendors are thus still operating, and people everywhere still need to go out for food.
International travel has largely been suspended. The U.S. government was working to get those U.S. citizens who wanted to leave Haiti out - the last scheduled flights were on Friday as I write, but may get extended. The border with the Domincian Republic is closed, sort of. There have been many more cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the Dominican Republic, and thus the lock-down has been more severe and more severely enforced. As a result, many Haitians have been returning to Haiti. There are efforts at health screening - at least taking temperatures - at official points of entry. But as the rest of the world has discovered, although slowing travel might help, it is nearly impossible to stop it. Supply chains for food and medicine, minimally, require people to cross over borders. And many people are just trying to get home.
Food shortages, already impacting close to one third of the population directly before COVID-19, will be made worse by travel and work restrictions. Prices have already begun to skyrocket - with a can of rice costing 600 gourdes (that is almost $6). The daily minimum wage in Haiti is 420 gourdes for apparel workers - far less for agricultural workers. So, for Haitians with employment, they need to work more than a full day, in some cases two days, to buy a can of rice. Many of these people will be out of work soon. In the United States someone earning the federal minimum wage would work 40 minutes to buy the same can of rice - except that by volume rice is even more expensive in Haiti right now. Just something to keep in mind.
As I feel compelled to remind people, U.S. policy lies immediately behind this crisis. From The Haitian Times:
In 1995, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Haiti lowered import tariffs on rice from 50% to 3%, as part of a structural adjustment program. The following year, President Bill Clinton’s Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act directed subsidies to U.S. rice farmers. By 2013, a nation that once grew most of its own food was importing 80% of its rice from the U.S. The policies eventually led to job losses in Haiti’s agriculture sector and swelling of the urban population.
The same article also examines the impact of these institutions and conditions on the health sector:
In addition to reduced tariffs on imports, the short term impacts of structural adjustment in Haiti included cuts to government expenditures in health and education, according to a 2011 paper published in the journal of the Japan Medical Association. National health care spending has dropped dramatically in recent years, from 16.6% of Haiti’s budget in 2004, to 7% in 2019.
Dr. Youri Louis, a physician in Haiti and leadership committee coordinator for the nonprofit EqualHealth, which supports medical and nursing education, said both international policy and government inaction are to blame for Haiti’s lack of investment in health services. By 2013, he noted, 64% of Haiti’s national health budget came from international aid, including NGOs.
Haiti’s health sector has 30 ICU beds. On Twitter this morning Jacqueline Charles from the Miami Herald was trying to confirm that the country had 50 ventilators - as she could only document the location of 24. Facing such grave shortages, one does not need to think very hard to understand the frustration people feel over $2 billion in theft of Petrocaribe funds by members of the current governing party and others. Or, I would hope, the anger against the “legal” blackmail perpetuated by international financial institutions and the U.S. government which has drained Haiti of desperately needed money for domestic investment.
Be clear: foreign aid in no way makes up for this. Capital flows in Haiti are negative - meaning more money leaves the country than comes in. In terms of private investment, $100 million more left the country in repatriated profits than arrived as new investment last year. The only significant in-flow of funds that might help now are remittances - but they will suffer as well, since Haitians working in the U.S. are also facing layoffs or cut hours.
For our program partners in Gros Morne, all of this means that the work must slow down. Training and workshops and other group activities have obviously been suspended. People still need to eat, however, and so the outreach program director is delivering seeds to program partners in the hopes that when the rains begin farmers will have supplies. Planting in the coming weeks means there will be more food in two or three months. Right now that is of critical concern.
We are launching an interactive map so folks can view different parts of the program. This map was just begun this week and is a work in progress. We will be adding photos and videos in the days and weeks ahead, as well as pinning new project sites. Check it out now! If you have a connection to the program to share, or a question, let us know in the comments below.