By Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – For more than a year, Haiti escaped the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting few cases and deaths, a rare break for America’s poorest country, which has so often been harassed. . unfortunately.
COVID-19 treatment centers closed due to lack of patients, Haitians resumed normal life, and the government was hesitant to even accept their allocation of free AstraZeneca (NASDAQ 🙂 vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX mechanism due to concerns. security and logistics.
However, now that some countries are already entering a post-pandemic phase thanks to vaccination campaigns, Haiti is dealing with its first serious outbreak.
And it is one of the few countries in the world that has not yet administered a single injection of the coronavirus vaccine.
Last month, infections and deaths increased more than five times after the arrival of new variants, in what the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) called a “warning about how quickly things can change with this virus. “.
Officially, Haiti had registered 15,895 infections and 333 deaths from COVID-19 as of June 5 among its 11 million inhabitants, relatively low case numbers compared to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, data is limited due to low testing rates, and doctors say the true numbers are likely to be much higher. Every day news of COVID-19 deaths comes in from well-known figures, such as a former senator or the head of the pension agency.
And the upward trend could prove “catastrophic,” according to Laure Adrien, director general of the Haitian Ministry of Health.
Poor sanitation means that diseases can spread rapidly in Haiti. Its slums are densely populated and its already overwhelmed and chaotic healthcare system relies on fickle donations.
Last week, two of the main hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the capital, Port-au-Prince, announced that they were saturated.
“We are overwhelmed with patients,” said Marc Edson Augustin, St. Luke’s Hospital medical director.
Jean ‘Bill’ Pape, a leading infectious disease expert from Haiti, said the country is not as prepared now as it used to be.
“We need to reopen new centers to increase the number of dedicated COVID beds,” Pape said.
The new wave also comes amid growing gang violence https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/gangs-raid-police-stations-weapons-haiti-deadly-violence-surges-2021-06- 07 that is hampering the provision of the little healthcare available.
St. Luke Hospital warned Monday that it may have to shut down its COVID-19 unit entirely as violence made it difficult to supply oxygen at the production site in the poor neighborhood of Cite Soleil.
Already in February, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) closed all but the emergency department of the Cite Soleil hospital, where last year it treated patients with COVID-19.
The richest Haitians are paying to be relocated to Florida or the Dominican Republic.
NOT A PRIORITY
Haitian doctors largely attributed their country’s apparent resistance to coronavirus last year to its relatively young population. About half of Haitians are under the age of 25.
Many locals ruled out that the virus was not a big problem or even doubted its existence. Its importance waned amid a growing humanitarian crisis https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/acute-malnutrition-surging-among-haitian-children-unicef-warns-2021-05-31 in the wake of the political unrest and extreme weather associated with climate change.
So when reports emerged last month of the arrival of the new variants first identified in Britain and Brazil and a spike in cases, the reaction was initially subdued.
Authorities demanded renewed precautions such as masks in public spaces, instituted an overnight curfew and suspended year-end graduation ceremonies. President Jovenel Moise urged Haitians to drink medicinal tea to protect themselves from the virus, an unproven remedy.
However, many Haitians continued their lives as usual, with authorities unwilling or unable to enforce the measures. A mayor of a Port-au-Prince district last week organized a music concert that was attended by thousands of people who were not wearing masks.
However, the pressure is mounting. PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said last week that “there was no time to lose,” as additional health capacity and preventive measures to curb transmission would be “critical.”
Businesses are beginning to require Haitians to enter only wearing masks and new COVID-19 treatment centers are opening.
“We have to open new structures to bring more patients with respiratory difficulties to avoid a catastrophe,” said Ronald Laroche, a doctor who runs a network of health centers and low-cost hospitals, and opened a COVID-19 center this week.
On Monday, the electoral council postponed a referendum on a new constitution that was scheduled for late June.
And next week, Haiti should receive its first batch, 130,000 doses, of COVID-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccination scheme.
Doctors say the challenge now will be to convince Haitians to get the vaccine.
Ronald Jean, 38, a restaurant manager in Port-au-Prince, said he was afraid of the virus for the first time.
But “first the authorities should take the vaccine on television, we will see how they do it,” he said. “And then I’ll decide whether to take it or not.”