Haiti’s informal economy complicates efforts to fight pandemic
GROS MORNE, Haiti (CNS) -- In mid-March, Haiti reported its first five official cases of COVID–19, and we are now moving toward a full-on lockdown. No one is allowed in or out of this country unless they are transporting merchandise, and we are severely undersupplied to try to combat this virus.
A lockdown as well as social distancing are not going to be easy to implement here. Most people here work in the informal economy, and particularly in the informal settlements of Port-au-Prince; many people live in close and cramped quarters without safe access to water and sanitation.
Here in Gros Morne in northern Haiti, our Maryknoll community of three lay missioners, our friends Geri and Britanny, and the good sisters of the Religious of Jesus and Mary are all staying put.
The way most of us were looking at it was this: We will either ride out the coronavirus crisis here and then be able to respond first when we do get to the other side of this, or we scramble and try to get home and ride it out there, with no known guarantee of when we'd get to return to our beloved Haiti. For us, even carefully considered, the choice was not too hard.
Of course, we understand that the reality of COVID-19 will likely hit Haiti -- and other countries like it -- harder than most of the world.
In my own ministry, the kids and teachers at my school do not have the luxury of moving class online. Last Friday, we talked to the kids and also heard some of the concerns and feelings the adults here express about what will be in store for us here.
The kids were called in to discuss with them what is happening and why we must shut down and send them home for another undetermined period.
At our Jesus-Mary School, the children also received an egg. My greatest fear is what their nutrition will start to look like in the best-case scenario of this being over in two months. Like many children in the U.S. and throughout the world who are on school food programs, many of our students have to rely on the food they receive at school to secure their nourishment.
The schooling that our students will now be losing comes on top of many weeks they already lost in the fall, due to the nationwide unrest and violence. There is now talk of whether they'll just have to start the whole same school year over again. This of course, leads to another question: Can you justly ask the parents to pay for the same school year for which they already sacrificed?
In the discussion among the adults, one of our preschool teachers, Madame Carlin, asked, "With the president blocking everything, how will people live?" She added: "They have no means. We've already suffered so much. How will people take care of themselves and their children?"
Lots of heads were shaking, as we all contemplated the gravity of the situation here. Another teacher, Madame Raymonde, added, "If you're the president and you block everything, OK, but after that? What means are you giving people in place of their work?"
With everything shut down -- even for the good reason of attempting to "flatten the curve" and prevent the worst-case scenario -- what leaders here and in many places haven't really addressed is the effect of a mass shutdown on people's livelihoods.
Unlike in the U.S., where an almost $2 trillion economic relief plan is in the works, Haiti doesn't have any such resources to give similar support to its people.
Madame Elliotte, another of our pre-kindergarten teachers, tried to get us focused on what we can do with a situation out of our hands. "We know what juices work to help with which part of nutrition," she said. "Citrus and grapefruit help give us important vitamins."
She went on to say, "We have to take care of ourselves, keep ourselves clean and lookout for one another." In her gentle way, I think she was reminding us that it is up to us what we do and that we cannot rely on the leaders to fix things or have all the answers. All of us have to band together to get through this.
Zamene, a second-grade teacher, asked about the people who have to walk great distances to get water. "Are they going to get arrested for trying to live?" Again, we all shook our heads, though I do not honestly think the people who must make four-hour trips just to retrieve water will be condemned for that.
Her comment does, however, point to a serious problem that we face here and that is on the verge of becoming even more critical: water supply. It is hard to effectively wash your hands to stave off germs and clean when clean, accessible (both in cost and location) water is in short supply and high demand.
I honestly cannot tell you what will happen if -- or rather, when -- this crisis hits our community here. But we worry that it will not be pretty. No matter how we look at it, the Haitian people will lose a lot in this mess.
Being in mission, we continuously witness the inequity and imbalance that pervades our world, and it is a hard thing to come to terms with. I come from such a place of opportunity and privilege and have had so much afforded me I didn't ever have cause to fully appreciate it until coming here.
Now I cannot even see my students every day while we wait this out. At least during the unrest in the fall, I could show up and be there for them. Now, like them, I am looking at the next several weeks and wonder what's next. They motivated me to press on during the smaller hard moments here, and they continue to be some of my biggest reasons for pushing on through this bigger hard moment. I cannot wait to embrace them all again and share with them the love that exists in my heart for each of them.
We continue to monitor the situation here in Haiti, and stay active and hopeful as we are planning our quarantine.
In the same amazing fashion I've watched this country and her people weather lockdowns, protests, closings of schools and businesses, and hardship unknown to so many in the world, Haiti and the people strong enough to be Haitian will get through this.
Even if we cannot know exactly when, we do know that there will be an end to this. Please try to provide support, pray for us and hold onto hope with us. I cannot tell you what hope in this looks like, but I can tell you that it is there. May we find it and let it fuel our capacity for kindness, love, and the best of who we get to be and choose as humans!