A decade after deadly cholera epidemic, Haiti awaits help

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Jonelson Princeton, 7, who survived cholera as a newborn, peers out from inside his home which was once used as an office, on a former UN base where he lives with his parents and grandmother in Mirebalais, Haiti, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Ten years after a cholera epidemic swept through Haiti and killed thousands, families of victims still struggle financially and await compensation from the United Nations as many continue to drink from and bathe in a river that became ground zero for the waterborne disease. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

MEILLE – Ten years after a cholera epidemic swept through Haiti and killed nearly 10,000 people, families of victims still struggle financially and await compensation from the United Nations as many continue to drink from and bathe in a river that became ground zero for the waterborne disease.

It was one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the preventable disease in recent history, sickening more than 850,000 people in a country of 11 million that had not reported a cholera outbreak for more than a century. The last confirmed case in Haiti was reported in January 2019, but the epidemic’s aftermath is still felt across much of the country, most acutely in places like Meille, where Haitians remain exposed to unsanitary conditions and are often unable to make up for the loss of income after the main breadwinners of their family died.

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“We’re not getting support from anyone,” said Lizette Paul, a 48-year-old mother of four children whose brother died in 2012 from the disease. They had to borrow hundreds of dollars from a neighbor with interest to bury him, and since then, Paul has resorted to washing clothes for people in the same river that became contaminated, charging $12 a month, not enough to care for her loved ones. Her brother had earned more by providing informal public transportation aboard a colorful bus known as a tap-tap.

“He was the backbone of the family,” Paul said.

Cholera was introduced to Haiti’s largest river in October 2010 by sewage from a nearby base of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal. Six years later, the U.N. acknowledged it played a role in the epidemic and had not done enough to help fight cholera in Haiti, but the organization has not specifically said it introduced the disease.

The disease spread quickly in a country that just nine months before the epidemic began had been devastated by the January 2010 earthquake. Cases spiked given that more than a third of the population lacks basic drinking water services and two-thirds have limited or no sanitation services, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

In a letter sent to senior staff when he left the U.N. in December, former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Gilmour called it an “avoidable tragedy” that “may rank as the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history.”

During a speech earlier this month at Harvard University, Gilmour talked publicly about the situation for the first time, noting that many felt the U.N. could have accepted moral responsibility much earlier and shown greater compassion.

“The low-water mark has been the U.N.’s continued legal response to Haiti,” he said.

One of the biggest concerns a decade after the epidemic began is the ongoing lack of funds to help those affected.

A group of U.N. rights experts sent a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres earlier this year, saying that roughly 5% of the $400 million pledged in 2016 had been raised. They also noted that a U.N. plan to provide direct assistance to victims and families was “quietly repackaged” as support to affected communities without consulting the victims or taking their specific needs into consideration.

The Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti countered in a response sent to The Associated Press that the international community has spent more than $705 million to fight cholera, including more than $80 million mobilized by U.N. agencies since 2016. It said the money has funded water and sanitation infrastructure and led to the creation of epidemiological and surveillance systems, adding that the U.N. is one of the largest funders of Haiti’s national water and sanitation agency.

However, the office noted the U.N. has been able to target around 25 of more than 130 communities most directly affected by cholera because of a lack of funds. In a recent letter to leaders around the world, the secretary-general asked for more contributions for cholera victims.

“Despite the gains made to stop transmission, much more work remains to be done to support them, as well as the hardest hit communities,” the U.N. said in a statement Wednesday.

On Sunday, more than 200 people filled a church in Mirebalais to decry the situation, honor those who died from cholera and celebrate those who survived, including 48-year-old Fritznel Prenus. The moto-taxi driver said he didn’t think he would recover from a disease that is easily treatable but can kill someone within hours if unattended.

“A lot of people around me didn’t survive,” he recalled of the scene at the hospital in Mirebalais where he was treated. “This sickness, this is something I don’t wish upon anyone.”

After the church service ended, dozens of those attending made the two-hour trek under a harsh sun to Meille and the nearby, now abandoned U.N. base to demand compensation. Among them was 72-year-old Simon Louis, who also survived cholera and is a member of a local group pursuing reparations.

“I don’t want justice just for me,” he said. “I would like to have justice for the ones who passed away. For the people who left loved ones who are suffering.”

Haiti will be declared cholera-free by the World Health Organization only after reaching three consecutive years with no new cases, but some wonder whether the milestone will be reached.

Dozens of people in Meille still walk every day to the river that once carried cholera with a toothbrush in hand or an empty jug to fill up with water they will drink.

“I don’t have a choice,” said 15-year-old Vanessa Jean-Baptiste. “This is the only water that’s not far from here.”


Lederer reported from New York.

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