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Haiti: a devastating hurricane in the time of cholera brought by UN peacekeepers

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Entire villages and neighborhoods were swept away in the southern fork of Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. The death toll rose to over 1000, but the severity of the disaster has not yet been fully assessed, because sections of the southwestern part of Haiti are completely cut off. In some places almost 100% of the infrastructure is down, as drone images provided by AFP Newslook showed.

 

With a key bridge washed out and “no means of communication, no radio, no telephone, no roads, nor a spot for an helicopter to land,” as Jean-Luc Poncelet, the country representative for the World Health Organization, put it with AFP, tens of thousands are sleeping in the streets and scrambling for food and drinking water. The surging ocean caused by the hurricane, and contaminated wells, are making the water undrinkable.

The country was lately coming back with an inflow of investments for infrastructures, communications and hotels.

“At this time at least 1.4 million people need assistance”, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General said at a press conference. “Some towns and villages have been almost wiped off the map; crops and food reserves have been destroyed; at least 300 schools have been damaged.”

Food stocks previously set aside for schools by the UN’s World Food Program are being tapped into to feed desperate families, said Alexis Masciarelli, a WFP spokesman. On Saturday the US delivered 480 tons of supplies in Port-au-Prince.

Due to the conditions on the ground, the distribution of supplies is challenging. Getting hold of food is becoming a job for the fittest.

On a road crossing the mountainous part of the peninsula, some people put up blockades to stop aid convoys they feared would pass without delivering supplies. An aid worker told AP that another convoy was attacked by gunmen in a remote valley where there had been a mudslide. Hundreds gathered on a beach to wait for a ship delivering aid.

Local and aid officials fear also that if supplies are only delivered to cities in the peninsula —Jérémie, Port Salut and Les Cayes — villagers will flock there and never leave, leading to overcrowding.

“We must think about developing a plan, to coordinate support and deliver it where it’s most needed and not where it’s easiest to access,” Mourad Wahba, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the country, said. “We must focus on delivering supplies to smaller rural communities, where many families survive on subsistence farming and have had all their crops washed away”.

The country would face a “severe famine,” said Pierre-Andre Dunbar, Haiti ‘s ambassador to the UN, because its southwestern region, the most ravaged by hurricane Matthew, is “considered the bread basket of Haiti”. After the worst drought in 50 years this past year, now Matthew struck during the region’s second main harvest season.

The extent of the crops destroyed was impossible to gauge, according to groups that work with local farmers in the Grand Anse region, whom they cannot reach.

The hurricane also halted a massive vaccination program that also addressed the key issues of water, sanitation and health.

Haitian physician John Carroll posted 5 days ago about Hospital Lumière, now isolated in the mountains of southern Haiti. “We do not have any food providers. The employees and patients are hungry. A man who lost a leg said that his hungry stomach hurt more than the wound.” Saving lives means also finding petrol for the ambulances.

On top of all that, Haiti’s already under-funded and under-equipped health system now faces a cholera epidemic, an illness that was virtually unknown in Haiti until UN peacekeepers introduced it in 2010. Cholera is now endemic in Haiti.

The Saint Antoine Hospital of Jérémie has already registered 43 cases, in the region there are currently 130 confirmed cases and 160 suspected. Thirteen were killed in the last few days by this bacterium that spreads through water causing uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting. During the storm water sources were contaminated by sewage overflow, worsening the outlook for a disease.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, UN peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, were not screened for the deadly disease. From their camp, they dumped infected sewage into a tributary that feeds Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Large numbers of the population rely on it for washing, cooking and drinking. Cholera, a preventable and treatable disease, spread quickly, infecting since then a million people and killing more than 9200.

Last week, the UN accepted for the first time a role in the deadly outbreak. “I feel tremendous regret and sorrow at the profound suffering of Haitians affected by cholera,” Ban Ki-moon said, calling it a “moral responsibility” “to meet our obligations to the Haitian people.”

The UN initially denied any link to the outbreak, but journalists and scientists proved it, also because that that particular strain of cholera originated from an epidemic in Nepal. A 2011 study by the US Centers for Disease Control confirmed the findings.

Who bears the burden of responsibility in these cases? Who pays?

The UN refused to provide a mechanism for victims to seek remedies, or financial compensation. Human rights advocates were tireless in their support, and in trying to hold the UN accountable in spite of the immunity status it enjoys.

Building a case on the principle that humanitarian organizations must ensure that their actions “do not harm”, and that adding to the UN’s negligent sanitation practices, its lack of honesty and transparency undermined a more effective response, the victims’ lawyers demanded compensation of $50,000 per illness and $100,000 per death, pushing up the UN’s liability to around $38 billion — that is four times the UN’s total annual peacekeeping budget.

“I again express United Nations’ moral responsibility and express my regret, we should have done much more,” said Mr. Ban during a visit to Switzerland. “I reaffirm the United Nations’ commitment that the UN will do all in its power to first of all treat the patients and stop this epidemic, and support the families of the victims and victims.”

Ban’s call to do “all in its power” needs to translate into action as soon as possible.

@GuiomarParada

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