As Haiti’s number of Covid-19 cases rises into the thousands, international agencies are sounding the alarm – and so are some human rights activists.
On Wednesday, Haiti’s Health Ministry reported at least 3,662 confirmed cases and 56 deaths from the virus but humanitarian groups fear the number is far higher, due to a lack of testing.
“There are currently only two laboratories in the country able to process COVID-19 tests,” the international relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) said in a statement Thursday, warning ” the issue of testing is increasingly becoming an important challenge to control the spread of the disease and provide adequate and timely care to those who test positive.”
The group said Haiti faced unique challenges when it comes to containing the virus, namely, the difficulty of following social distancing measures and importing cases from neighboring countries.
“It has been impossible for most people to follow the measures, particularly those who live in the densely populated slums of the capital, where the highest number of cases have been reported,” MSF said, adding that among the numerous challenges is also “the ongoing return of thousands of Haitian migrants from the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Caribbean, with more than 17,000 registered cases.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also expressed worry. “We are very concerned about Haiti at the moment because of its unique circumstances, unique fragility and the fact that the disease is accelerating in a highly vulnerable population,” WHO’s Executive Director for Health Emergencies, Michael Ryan, said during a press conference last week.
His remarks came after the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned the spread of coronavirus in Haiti could result in widespread famine.
“What has been common to many regions has been intense community transmission and it is clear that once community transmission has been established it’s very difficult to root the virus out,” WHO Director Ryan added.
Meanwhile, the government’s inconsistent response to the pandemic has raised questions.
The country was put on lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19 on March 19. However, a month later, the government of President Jovenel Moïse ordered businesses to resume production of manufactured goods, a key component of the country’s export economy.
Then on May 21 as infections rose, Moïse announced sweeping new measures to prevent the spread of the virus. These prohibited any public gathering of more than five people, adding that those in violation would be fined 3,000 Haitian Gourdes (about $27) or possibly face a five-day prison sentence or a 15 days of community service. In addition, the president announced a curfew between 8pm and 5am daily.
The decree also included measures that appeared to have little to do with social distancing: Articles 14 and 15 prohibit taking and sharing photos or video of Covid-19 patients without their authorization, and strictly prohibit sharing on social media any images of bodies of people who died from Covid-19 – under the threat of fine of nearly $200 or 15 days in jail.
A government spokesperson told CNN that the photography rules are aimed at preventing the “stigmatization” of coronavirus patients. But civil rights activists have criticized the decree as a threat to Haiti’s democracy by limiting the spread of news and information.
“This latest decree is very dangerous for our democratic process, the decree opens the door for all types of abuses,” said Velina Elysée Charlier, an anti-corruption activist. “Today we’re at a crossroads where we have to question the government’s real motives. This decree will limit our freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution.”
The head of a local human rights organization also accused the government of trying to silence critical voices. “This decree is part of the Jovenel regime to not only crack down on protests and free speech but to put more people in jail, especially opposition activists,” said Pierre Esperance, Executive director of Réseaux de défense des droits de l’homme, the country’s largest human rights organization. Haiti’s government has faced political unrest and protests for more than a year over allegations of corruption and complaints about soaring inflation.
“This is nothing new for anyone who’s been following this president in the last three years,” Esperance added. “He wants to scare people and control the flow of information to make them look good. This is one more attempt by this administration to consolidate power as they’re failing to respond to the pandemic.”
The government did not respond to a request for comment on the criticisms, but has defended the strictness of its lockdown orders, saying they were necessary for public safety.
Haitian Foreign Minister Claude Joseph told CNN the government was “working to protect lives and contain the spread of Covid-19. Public safety during this time demands decisive action. We are announcing fines for actions which actively spread the virus - endangering the public.”
“This is a community-wide, nationwide effort and the vast majority of Haitians are doing the right thing and taking the necessary precautions to contain the virus - we want to help protect everyone by disincentivizing actions that could set us back,” Joseph added.
But global public health experts warn that imposing jail time for those who violate social distancing rules may only make things worse.
“Rather than support the population to mitigate the impact of this deadly virus, with this decree the Haitian government threatens the most vulnerable people with criminal action,” said Dr Louise Ivers, Executive Director of Mass General Center for Global Health and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.
“Already prisons in Haiti are overflowing with poor people, are inhumane and deadly grounds for infectious outbreaks,” Ivers said.