Haiti’s earthquake: lessons from last time

By Mike Phipps

“Doctors and medical workers in Haiti are scrambling to treat thousands of patients injured by Saturday’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake – which killed more than 1,400 people – amid reports of shortages of painkillers and other medication,” reports The New Humanitarian.

“The earthquake is the latest setback for Haiti, which has been battling a rise in COVID-19 cases, growing hunger, rampant gang violence that has displaced nearly 20,000 people, and political uncertainty following the 7 July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.”

The quake is dire news for Haiti’s health sector. Vaccination against the coronavirus is the lowest in the region, with less than two percent so far having received a first dose. Several hospitals and clinics were damaged by the earthquake, along with 37,000 homes. Some 7,000 people were injured, but that number is expected to rise: blocked roads mean the wounded cannot get to hospitals. Aid efforts have been hampered by pelting rain caused by Tropical Depression Grace.

Only bad news seems to make the headlines about Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where last year 55,000 children under five suffered from malnutrition – 11,000 from severe malnutrition. Half the population are in need of immediate food assistance.

Last month, despite a recent fourfold increase in weekly COVID-19 deaths, Haiti was still awaiting its first vaccine delivery from the international COVAX programme aimed at providing equal access to coronavirus treatment worldwide.

This latest quake awoke memories of the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed between 100,000 and 300,000 people, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. This week the Haiti Support Group tweeted, ““Haiti’s apparent fragility to ‘natural’ disaster is no accident. The world made it that way. After the 2010 quake, disaster capitalists promised recovery & resilience. Instead, they became richer as Haitians were systematically excluded.”

It’s hard to count how many things were wrong with the international community’s response to the 2010 earthquake. Médecins Sans Frontières had its aeroplanes, which were bringing vital medical relief, turned away by US air traffic controllers who had taken control of the main international airport.

In fact, the Pentagon took control not only of the airport but of the aid effort more generally. Its priority was not the rapid delivery of food and water, but the introduction of 10,000 military – including 2,200 Marines and 3,500 paratroopers – to police the population. A compliant media was duly briefed on the threat of looters and the need for security.

Yet the main impulse of the overwhelming majority of Haitians affected by the quake was self-organisation and solidarity. Neighbourhood residents got together to remove and stack dead bodies to lessen the threat of disease and helped each other search for survivors in the rubble.

President Obama immediately promised $100 million, which sounds like a lot of money, but was less than what the US spent at the time in five hours on the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The $100 million loan promised by the IMF was likewise a poor joke. Haiti’s debts, mostly incurred during the decades of US-backed dictatorship, were already unpayable.

In March, the US pledged £1.5 billion in reconstruction aid at a UN donors’ conference. Months later, not a cent of that had materialised in Haiti. Between 23 major charities, US$1.1 billion had been collected for Haiti for relief efforts, but only 2% of the money had been released. Six months after the quake struck, 98% of the rubble remained uncleared, with thousands of bodies beneath it.

By September, there were still over one million refugees living in tents. Girls and women in the camps, inadequately protected by the UN, were subject to rape and sexual violence, sometimes at the hand of UN forces themselves who were immune from prosecution. One report noted: “There is no electricity at all in the camps… There is no food.  The children are terribly hungry.  The food aid program was terminated in April and nothing took its place.  The authorities cut off the food so people would leave the camps, but where is there to go?”

A month later, a cholera epidemic, unknown for decades in the country, broke out. It is now widely acknowledged that this was introduced by UN peacekeepers whose human waste leaked into the river system. Containment of the disease was hampered by UN officials who obstructed investigations into its origins.  Over the years the epidemic would kill around 9,000 Haitians.

The international aid effort was almost a textbook example of how not to help rebuild a country. In 2015, one report summarised the failure with its headline: “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti ­and Built Six Homes”.

Nine years later, the beneficiaries were clearer. Of the $2.3 billion of aid awarded by the US Agency for International Development, 55% went to agencies inside the Washington beltway and only 2.3% was awarded to Haitian organisations. Much of the US ‘aid’ was blown on a new industrial park, 200 miles from the epicentre of the quake and of little benefit to the victims.

This month’s earthquake has thankfully done far less damage and killed only a fraction of the numbers of 2010. Nonetheless, the plight of survivors is worsened by extreme weather and the Covid pandemic. “Once again,” note the Haiti Support Group, “the international ‘aid’ vultures are circling overhead. Haiti cannot be forced to go through this charade over and over again.”

The Group advises that people wishing to donate to help the relief effort should go through local groups, organisations and associations that are already embedded in local communities or have longstanding relationships with impacted communities. These groups are respected and trusted, run by long-serving Haitian professionals. Its website has links to a number of organisations that it recommends supporting here.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Haitian earthquake 2010. Source: originally posted to Flickr as Haiti Earthquake. Author: Photo Marco Dormino/ The United Nations United Nations Development Programme, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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