A forgotten epidemic
By Katharine Oswald
Haiti is home to the world’s worst cholera epidemic today. The outbreak was instigated in 2010, unknowingly, by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers. Five years later, Haitians are still waiting for an adequate response to this disaster.
I sat beneath an almond tree in Poirée, a rice-planting village on the outskirts of St. Marc, in northwestern Haiti. Though 40 townspeople formed a tight circle around my makeshift interview station, my attention was focused on the slight woman seated across from me.
“Did you contract cholera?” I asked her.
“Did anyone else in your family contract it?”
A pause. Her eyes darted from my own to the ground beneath us. Then Renette launched into her story: “My name is Renette Viergélan. I am 31 years old. In 2010, I was struck by cholera. While I was in the hospital, my baby also became sick with cholera. Before I regained consciousness, he had died.”
Renette has two surviving children, but she admitted her thoughts are ‘’consumed by the memory of [her] baby.’’ With her town’s continued reliance on river water and poor access to medical care, she is afraid she or her children will contract the disease again.
It was September 2015, and I was interviewing cholera victims and their families as part of the Face | Justice campaign, which commemorated the five-year anniversary of cholera’s infamous introduction to Haiti. The campaign showcased images and testimonies of those affected by cholera at the U.N. in New York, Port-au-Prince and Geneva.
The pain wrought by cholera in Haiti is evident in individual stories like Renette’s. Yet the scale of the devastation is not grasped until one confronts the numbers – cholera has killed 8,987 Haitians and infected over 762,000. Joseph, a young man in a neighboring village, shared bluntly, “Every family in my community has lost something…because of cholera.’’
Cholera was unknown in Haiti before 2010. It travelled here through the unlikeliest of sources. Nepalese troops with MINUSTAH, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti, were stationed at a base near Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Sewage from the base, contaminated with a particular strand of cholera endemic to Nepal, leaked into the river when it was negligently disposed of by a U.N. contractor.
The disease quickly spread to all corners of the country. After a gradual reduction in infection rates over the past three years, new cases are now on the rise. It appears that cholera is in Haiti to stay.
The U.N.’s role in creating this humanitarian disaster is now undeniable, yet it still has not accepted responsibility for its actions. Instead it has developed a sweeping Cholera Elimination Plan–which is only 18 percent funded after five years of fundraising efforts. As a key decision-maker within the U.N. system, the U.S. government should use its unique position to help fund the Plan and encourage the U.N. to publicly acknowledge its negligence.
With such a poor international response, and the Haitian government reticent to make demands of the U.N., victims’ hope for remedies have waned. However, the people we spoke with are clear: they want their pain to be acknowledged; they want better lives for their communities; they want international donors to live up to their humanitarian principles; and they want the U.N. to finally face justice.
To read more stories collected by the Face | Justice campaign, visit www.facejustice.com.
Katharine Oswald is a policy analyst and advocacy coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.