Fearful the coronavirus is silently spreading, Haiti braces for pandemic

By Tom Tracy  | Catholic News Service | Florida  – Fearful that the coronavirus pandemic has spread more widely than official numbers suggest, the Haitian government and numerous nongovernmental organizations are bolstering COVID-19 public awareness and hygiene programs.

There also are contingency plans to reactivate a system of “transition centers,” permanent structures that were used to isolate and care for patients during the cholera outbreak a decade ago after a massive earthquake claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Haiti had 74 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of April 27, according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University. There were six deaths attributed to the illness in the country of 11 million people, the vast majority of whom live in poverty.

The presence in Haiti of the coronavirus is particularly alarming to observers given the general fragility of the national health care system and a low inventory of personal protective equipment, ventilators and staffing associated with hospital intensive care beds. Health care observers estimated there are no more than 60 ventilators in the country and even fewer ICU beds.

Haiti’s Ministry of Health has instituted measures that prioritize home quarantine as the first preference for someone exposed to the coronavirus. However, that may change with the evolution of COVID-19. Transition centers previously used in the cholera outbreak could be retooled if hospitals become overwhelmed with the patients.

Veronica dal Moro, head of programs for the Italy-based AVSI Foundation, said the agency’s staff of 250 has reassessed priorities and strategies under the pandemic, favoring youth and community programs that can continue in small groups or remotely.

Many AVSI programs are centered in Port-au-Prince’s poorest communities, Cite Soleil and Martissant, where permanent recreational and educational centers are located.

“Mental health support can be given by the psychologists without any risk because it is an individual activity, but with parenting skills or stress relief sessions we manage people in small groups, keeping social distancing and with places for hand washing and sanitation,” dal Moro said.

AVSI continues to support rural areas with distribution of food vouchers and cash-for-work programs. Supporting Haitians economically is crucial in a country that underwent an economic crisis in 2019 and which now has its airports, seaports and most commercial activity on hold.

“Haiti is a country that lives a lot on imported goods, especially rice. … this is worrying,” dal Moro said.

“Isolation measures are not really that applicable in countries like Haiti,” she added. “People live in small places with a lot of people living inside. Public transportation is very crowded, and it is difficult to imagine that social distancing or isolation measures can be respected.”

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