As the coronavirus hit countries across the Americas hard for more than a year, Haiti had reported relatively few cases and deaths, allowing the country to shutter COVID-19 treatment centres for lack of patients.
But now, as some wealthy nations around the world are moving into a post-pandemic phase thanks to extensive vaccination campaigns, Haiti is grappling with its first serious outbreak of COVID-19.
The country, which earlier hesitated to accept its allotment of free vaccines through the United Nations-backed COVAX mechanism over safety and logistical concerns, has yet to administer a single jab of coronavirus vaccines.
Last month, infections and fatalities rose more than fivefold following the arrival of new variants, in what the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) called a “cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus”.
Two of the main hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the capital Port-au-Prince announced last week that they were saturated. “We are overwhelmed with patients,” said Marc Edson Augustin, medical director of St Luke Hospital.
Jean ‘Bill’ Pape, a top Haitian infectious disease expert, said the country now was not as prepared as it had been. “We need to reopen new centres to increase the number of dedicated COVID beds,” he said.
Official coronavirus figures remain relatively low in the nation of more than 11 million people: Just 15,895 cases and 333 deaths have been recorded since early last year, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Yet data is limited due to low testing rates and doctors say the real numbers are likely much higher.
Recently, well-known figures, including a former senator and the head of the country’s pension agency, died reportedly due to the coronavirus. The upwards trend could prove “catastrophic”, said Laure Adrien, general director of Haiti’s Health Ministry.
Poor sanitation means disease can spread fast in the country, where impoverished neighbourhoods are densely packed and an already overwhelmed and shambolic healthcare system is dependent on fickle donations.
The new wave also comes amid surging gang violence that is hampering the provision of what little healthcare is available.
Nearly 10,000 residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince have fled their homes since the start of the year due to gang violence or because of fires – the origins of which are still unknown – according to a United Nations count.
Many residents of the Martissant neighbourhood, the scene of the latest gang clashes, fled last week.
“Will there be an increase in this violence that will result in even more displacement in the next weeks or months?” said Bruno Lemarquis, UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti. “That is the biggest question.”
St Luke Hospital warned on Monday that it may have to close its COVID-19 unit altogether as violence was making it hard to stock up on oxygen at the production site in the impoverished Cite Soleil slum.
In February, Doctors Without Borders (MSF, according to its French acronym) shut all but the emergency department at the hospital in Cite Soleil which last year treated COVID-19 patients.
Lack of vaccines
Meanwhile, Haiti has yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccine, though officials say they expect to get 130,000 AstraZeneca doses this month through COVAX, which aims to ensure lower-income nations around the world get their share of vaccines.
The United States also said it would donate a portion of six million doses to Haiti, though officials have not specified an exact number or when they would arrive.
Some wealthier Haitians are flying to Florida for their vaccines, as more than 63 percent of US adults have received at least one shot to date, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
💉 The situation is particularly acute in Central America and the Caribbean. Just 2 million people have been fully vaccinated in Central America and less than 3 million in the Caribbean – @DirOPSPAHO #COVID19
— PAHO/WHO (@pahowho) June 9, 2021
“The inequities in vaccination coverage are undeniable,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, vaccine supply is concentrated in a few nations while most of the world waits for doses to trickle down.”
Back in Haiti, doctors say the challenge now will be convincing people to get vaccinated.
Ronald Jean, 38, a restaurant manager in Port-au-Prince, said he was for the first time afraid of the virus. But he said that before he gets a jab, “first the authorities should take the vaccine on television, we’ll see how they do.
“And then I will decide whether or not to take it.”