Sunday, 21 November 2010

Haiti and the politics of cholera

No one expected Haiti’s reconstruction after the devastating earthquake in January to be quick or easy. However, the outbreak of cholera currently sweeping through the crowded refugee camps and ruined cities (that as of today has killed 1250 and affected 20 000 more) has struck an unanticipated and utterly crippling blow against on-going relief efforts. Low levels of education and sanitation mean that the disease, though deemed “easily preventable”, is spreading at an alarming pace; whilst the nation’s medical infrastructure –which has not even been rebuilt to its inadequate pre-earthquake standard, is unable to cope.

It’s little wonder therefore, that suggestions the outbreak may have stemmed from Nepalese members of the UN Peacekeeping Force (due to latrine discharges in their camp), have unleashed a torrent of public rage against the blue-helmets. As biological evidence emerged that the strain originated from South Asia, Peackeepers were stoned and violent anti-UN riots spread throughout the country. Return fire killing two of the rioters only stoked anger further.

Yet beyond the understandable fear and resentment, there are other factors at play. UN troops are in Haiti to provide a secure situation in which reconstruction can take place – not to provide it themselves; yet poor conveyance of this fact to the local population has resulted in an inevitable bewilderment and bitterness amongst those who –living in abject poverty and struggling for survival on a daily basis- see the soldiers cruising around in armoured cars whilst apparently doing nothing to help them. This week when the floodgates opened, this built-up tension manifested itself in violence.

Additionally, some factions of the rioters begun to target the offices of candidates involved in Haiti’s upcoming presidential election [see picture right]. Although some of the front runners have called for the poll’s postponement- it is still scheduled to go ahead and from such a volatile situation there is a genuine danger that the kind of political violence which blighted Haiti for decades may emerge once again. Indeed, some commentators have already suggested that the worst of the rioting may have been deliberately orchestrated in a bid to destabilise the vote – a theory strengthened by simultaneous outbreaks of violence at 6am last Monday.

Stopping the riots must now be a priority. Attacks on clinics, medics and body collectors are directly undoing any progress made in the urgent fight against the spread of cholera; whilst a delay in the election will only hold-up the kind of political stability required for real improvements in healthcare, infrastructure and aid spending so that Haiti can respond better to epidemics in the future. Of course this does not mean simply a military response to bolster law and order; a full and public enquiry by the UN as well as serious reforms to the structure their peacekeeping mission are essential if trust is to be restored. This is especially important considering that the troops are likely to be in Haiti for some time yet. Of course, progress on the peacekeeping front should be coupled with urgent education on how to prevent the spread (something that President Préval has already thrown himself into through special TV appearances) and international support in terms of medicine and finance.

The epidemic is expected to peak at the end of next week but the damage to Haiti’s society, political climate and above all its population will go on and on. The reconstruction is about to become longer and harder still.

No comments:

Post a Comment