April 28, 2020
Jean Marie Théodat is a geographer, Professor at the University of Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne and at the State University of Haiti
With seventy-six people contaminated and six deaths (as of April 28, 2020), Haiti is one of the Caribbean countries the least touched by the pandemic.
The spread of the pandemic (already 282 deaths in the nearby Dominican Republic) does not seem to overly worry the authorities or the residents, despite multiple vulnerabilities and a rather uncertain preparation of rescue services: for the past several weeks, we can observe a global reaction that varies from disbelief to denial. Three important factors must be identified when defining a common attitude when faced with this new challenge.
A POPULATION ALREADY AFFLICTED AND FATALISTIC
On the one hand is the population. They have already experienced the 2010 earthquake (300 000 deaths), the 2010 cholera (over 10 000 deaths) and different cyclonic events these past few years (of which Matthew in 2016, 3 000 deaths). This population is, if not resigned, at least used to disasters and this one, that is hitting rich and distant countries first, does not seem a big enough threat to bring about a change in daily habits. So confinement and social distancing measures laid down by the authorities have had no effect. It required aggressive intervention from the police to force some of the pastors to close the churches where they not only continued to preach with impunity, but were also defying the virus to get them, they who benefited from a garantee of divine protection. Unsafe and openly provocative behavior, such as using the same handkerchief on the face of all the believers as an anointing, provoked an outcry on social media and forced the governor to intervene.
Social media is another element in the debate and the public perception of the virus. In a country where fake news abounds, and in the absence of any public, academic or health authority capable of taking on State speeches on the subject, a rumor asserts that the virus is a government invention to request new budget funds from the usual financiers. It's put on the back of imagination and government corruption. Nothing was done for protection before the end of March, after the first declared case in Haiti: it was on March 19, a Belgian citizen returning from a trip with the virus in his luggage.
A LATE GOVERNMENT REACTION IN A BLOCKED COUNTRY
On the other hand are the State's authorities. Having lost all credibility because of the consecutive scandals tied to the management of the PetroCaribe funds, they no longer have any legitimacy to be heard, let alone heeded.
The administration's response was first to lay low, while waiting to see what the WHO would suggest. When action did come, with the well-known delay, the government reacted with blind conformity that left the population speechless. Just as it was unreasonable in Paris to rush to the coffee shops and restaurants to celebrate "the last night before the confinement", so was it impossible to apply the new directives in Port-au-Prince: how to you wash your hands frequently when there is nothing next to the faucet? How do you get masks when there are so few? People rushed to the stores, forsaking the elementary preventive measures. But this scramble only applies to the urban factions who can purchase stock. In a country where 80 % of the population lives with less than two dollars per day, stocking is impossible and daily ventures in search of a pitance is vital. No one abides by the curfew at sunset imposed since March 19. But already there was nobody was in the streets of the capital after a certain hour. So it's a useless ban.
In all actuality, the country was already mostly confined for the past six months at least because of territory blockage (Péyi lok) caused by the extreme prevailing tension that followed the protests calling for the resignation of Jovenel Moïse's regime, accused of corruption and embezzlement of public funds. So, nothing new under the sun after March 19. Only the kind of confinement is new since it combines the caracteristics of the previous two crises: the cholera epidemic and the curfew brought on by the social unrest since July 2018.
As for the population, it lacks effective means of confinement against the disease. It even believes it has sufficient solutions within traditional pharmacopeia to efficiently fight the disease. Several leading figures from the vodou arena notably do not hesitate to propose their services (for a fee of course) to heal the disease.
A WINNING POLITICAL GAME FOR THE GOVERNMENT IN POWER
When news of the first victims made its way to Haiti, the response was all the more nonchalant that the western media, from whom the news passes through, had largely insisted on the regional nature, if not only Chinese, of the problem, so much so that nothing, or almost nothing, was done to prevent the virus from arriving on European lands. It was December and the country was just getting out of the Péyi lok turmoil. The decrease in protests, already noticed in November, was evident at the end of the year with everybody's preoccupations obviously refocused on family commemorations of the most important religious holiday fo the year. In a wish to celebrate Christmas and New Year's in peace, the volume of the protests had already gone down.
The confinement directive reinforced this tendancy and the new Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe, appointed after the dismissal of the very unpopular Michel Lapin, took advantage of this opportunity to give the impression he was controlling the situation. So the government was a double winner in this ordeal: with the confinement it was able to prevent the opposition from renewing the protests and it was able to restore its administrative image.
But now it's time to restart the economy. One month exactly after discovering the first case, on Sunday April 19, the government decided to start a partial reopening by allowing businesses to run with a third of their personnel, while schools, universities and places of worship stay closed. Are these measures going against the spread of the pandemic or are they a wise choice to avoid additional economic suffering that the country cannot take? The future will tell.
Jean Marie Théodat is a geographer, Professor at the University of Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne (Prodig) and at the State University of Haiti. He is a member of the Research and organization division of geographic information (PRODIG), of the Relations Haitiano Dominicaines (Lareho) and of the Resilient Urbanism laboratory (URBALaB) at Port-au-Prince.