By Tom Tracy - OSV Newsweekly, 11/28/2010
Flooding after Hurricane Tomas, a growing infectious disease epidemic and sluggish progress in rebuilding after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake — Haiti has suffered in almost every way anticipated this year with the exception of widespread social unrest. And some fear that might be next.
Early this month, Hurricane Tomas caused heavy rain, flooding and at least two dozen deaths in various parts of Haiti, including a river of water in downtown Leogane, the city outside of Port-au-Prince at the earthquake’s epicenter. The watery mess across the island nation in cities such as Les Cayes, Jacmel and Gonaives added misery to the estimated 1.3 million people living day to day in temporary shelters and tent cities in and around the Haitian capital. It also caused hardship on small farmers who watched their crops wash away.
On top of that is concern that a rising number of cholera cases could grow exponentially due to the hurricane’s impact on sanitation and safe drinking water. The cholera outbreak came into focus in October in a rural area north of Port-au-Prince and has claimed more than 800 lives, with thousands more sick with infection in area hospitals. The fast-moving disease causes rapid dehydration among some carriers and is forcing people to seek medical care throughout Haiti.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that all the Haitian patients had the same strain of cholera, one that is most commonly found in South Asia. Cholera is easily treatable, but Haiti’s stressed infrastructure and limited public health resources are considered extremely vulnerable, especially since the earthquake. As cholera threatens the tent cities in Port-au-Prince, many more are likely to perish and the disease could run a terrible course.
Add to that environment a previously postponed and contentious national election, set for Nov. 28. Haiti’s President René Préval, who is unable to run again for office, will step aside. But Haiti’s election commission has already disqualified many of the parties and candidates, leaving some credibility doubts for the process.
The upcoming election may bring civil unrest, and has prompted U.S. missionary and nongovernment organizations to postpone travel until after the new year. In the Miami archdiocese, which has a variety of ties and mission relationships to Haiti, the election season prompted a pause in the earthquake-response operations and its twice-monthly medical missions to Haiti.
“Everyone has been telling us they expect quite a bit of unrest around these elections,” said Anthony P. Vinciguerra, director of the Center for Justice and Peace at St. Thomas University in Miami, which partners with several humanitarian and church-based efforts in the impoverished Port-de-Paix diocese in Haiti’s northwest.
Vinciguerra canceled one of the university’s educational delegations to Haiti last October on the news of the cholera outbreak. He was concerned about distracting the Haitian’s partners at a time of uncertainty as much as putting his students at a health risk. Others wonder how Haitians, wearied by the events of this year, will have the energy to participate in an election.
The director of the Nashville-based program for The Parish Twinning Program of the Americas (PTPA), Theresa Patterson, is not telling any of her affiliate programs that they shouldn’t go to Haiti now but to take a wait-and-see approach. Patterson estimates that there are 350 to 500 twinning relationships between Haiti and U.S. and Canadian Catholic institutions, including parishes, schools and associations.
“I am just looking at the elections as being a sham,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “Everything that I have read is the people say they aren’t going to vote. I don’t anticipate any unrest mainly because of the traumatic situations that have occurred, and the people couldn’t possibly have the energy to muster any real kind of opposition to the elections. I think it will be a very low turnout.”
The multinational Haiti Rebuilding Commission was expected to offer high-level leadership on rebuilding Haiti’s capital especially. It remains unclear about how to rebuild the city. And former President Bill Clinton, co-chair of the commission, has expressed alarm over the slow delivery of an estimated $5.3 billion in funds pledged to Haiti following the earthquake. The United States promised more than $1 billion of assistance, which has not materialized.
Some of the multinational suggestions were to decentralize the population centers, move people out of the capital and into rural revitalization through designed communities promoting new agriculture. But the approaching elections likely put a damper on concrete decision-making in the second half of this year. And no one wants to bully Préval’s fragile government, which has good relations with the United States.
“There is a lack of sense of urgency,” said Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr., a second-year resident at Columbia University’s New York–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and a longtime visitor to Haiti through the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Project Medishare. The group runs health care clinics in Haiti and was responsible for a large part of the earthquake medical response in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
DeGennaro told OSV: “We are in a sitting-on-our-hands phase. ... This [donation] money was meant for emergency funding. How is a cholera epidemic or a hurricane coming through a tent city not an emergency? It runs contrary to a sense of urgency, and it’s a huge mistake.”
With an estimated $330 million in Catholic donations collected worldwide after the temblor, an international summit of bishops and Church leaders convened in Miami this fall to forge new mechanisms for rebuilding churches in Haiti.
American Catholics contributed some $148 million for humanitarian relief and reconstruction — much of which hasn’t been yet spent due to accountability concerns and the demands of executing high-quality reconstruction projects.
The Haitian hierarchy signed on to a rebuilding plan with global Church partners.
But whether it’s the elections, cholera or the hurricane, the underlying fragility of Haiti’s civic infrastructures and weak political systems make it prone to catastrophe.
“In Haiti a measly tropical storm can come through and wipe out 3,000 people because in part the hillsides are so deforested,” St. Thomas University’s Vinciguerra told OSV. “We need to address not only the immediate relief issues but the underlying structural issues and need for accountable government and better infrastructure.”
Tom Tracy writes from Florida.
The U.S. bishops’ conference created a Haiti Advisory Group that has been charged with distributing $33 million collected for Church needs from a special collection taken up in dioceses across the United States immediately after January’s earthquake. This amount represents 40 percent of the total collected, which reached $83 million. The remaining 60 percent of the funds were assigned to Catholic Relief Services for humanitarian relief and development work.
“The generosity of American Catholics has been nonstop since the earthquake, and we want to provide a mechanism that we can all use to help the Haitians rebuild in a reliable, transparent, accountable way,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the group.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs