Social Distancing Difficult in Haiti

April 18, 2020

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Haiti, the government has mandated the closure of schools and churches as an increasing number of people walk the streets with masks. However, in the oceanside slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s poor live in overcrowded ghettos where social distancing just isn’t an option.

Residents of these marginalized neighborhoods are driven to reside here out of necessity. In the States, oceanfront property goes for a premium, but in Port-au-Prince, the coastline is a series of smelly trash dumps where nobody wants to go. It’s here that the poorest of the poor set up whatever sort of makeshift shack they can with whatever materials that are available. There is no running water, no electricity, and very few toilets. People shower out in the open with nothing more than a bucket of water, and they wake up each day hoping they can come up with the money to eat for that day.

They don’t have the luxury of going to one of Haiti’s few modern grocery stores where employees wear masks, and there are hand-washing stations by the door. Instead, they must purchase food and supplies at overcrowded street markets which are often lined with piles trash on all sides. For a few of the more fortunate Haitians or for privileged foreigners like my wife and me, social distancing may be possible to a degree, but not for Haiti’s urban poor.

No strangers to sickness, disease, and death, during COVID, it’s pretty much “business as usual” in the slums.

People need to ration water just to ensure that they can drink and bathe, so how are they going to regularly wash their hands? The country’s systems have failed them on every level. If they are sick or injured, they know they don’t have money to go to the hospital, and even if they did there are nowhere near enough medical facilities.

Our neighborhood is no stranger to poverty, but at least we’re fortunate enough to have a paved road and actual houses with plumbing and toilets. However, if you cross the main road that runs close by our house and descends toward the nearby seashore, you will begin to see homes that are strange conglomerations of wood, corrugated metal and walls comprised of exposed, low-quality concrete blocks. For the people living here, COVID-19 is just another in the long list of possible threats that could kill them.

Many of us are shaken up right now as the immanent possibility of death for ourselves or someone we love seems more real than ever before.

Perhaps in this moment, the resilient people of Haiti’s ghettos have something to teach us. They live every day with this sense of vulnerability, yet they wake up each morning and choose to laugh, to find joy, and to fight for survival.

They do not allow themselves to be ruled by fear because if they did they would be crippled by it every day.

Let us never forget that every single human life has infinite value. The pain of losing a loved one is the same pain whether you’re rich and powerful or whether you’re fighting to survive in the ghetto. This is a unique moment in history where people all over the world are suffering from a common threat. During this crisis, may we resist the temptation to use self-preservation as an excuse to forget those who are less fortunate. Instead, may our common suffering lead us to greater empathy and unity.

One day in the not so distant future, most of us will look back on this crisis in the rearview while living in relative comfort. May we never forget that the most marginalized people, such as those living in Haiti’s slums, were suffering before this current crisis, they’re suffering just like us amidst this crisis, and they will continue to suffer long after this is over unless we can come alongside them to help them fight for a better future.

by Josh Gray

Josh is the director of Thrive Ansanm, and he lives in Haiti with his wife Bethany and their son Koa. Josh and Bethany moved to Haiti full-time in 2019, and they started Thrive Ansanm the following year.

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