While in Haiti during the past three weeks, we have watched as the coronavirus pandemic has been unfolding around the world. We see that it is proving to be an unprecedented challenge for even the most resourced and organized public health systems. We know how disruptive this has been in the lives of our home communities as people unite in a common purpose to protect those who are most vulnerable to this disease.
Last Thursday (March 19), the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Haiti. Previously, cases in Hispaniola had been confined to the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor to the east. The government of Haiti has declared a state of emergency, which includes closing schools, universities, and places of worship, as well as imposing a curfew.
International travel has been greatly curtailed to Haiti in recent weeks by the reinstatement of the U.S. State Department’s highest-level travel advisory (“Do not travel”). One unintentional but positive impact of this restriction is that it has probably slowed down the rate of exposures from unknowingly infected travelers.
Still, Haiti certainly will be challenged by the pandemic. Prior to Thursday, the Haitian government had already taken steps by further restricting travel along the border with the DR and from incoming flights, and by gearing up public education campaigns. Hospitals are preparing to care for the sickest as best as they are able.
What is Konbit Sante’s role in times like these, when we are not a disaster relief organization or a frontline care provider? We are approaching this as we did with the 2010 earthquake and 2011 cholera epidemic: accompanying and supporting our Haitian healthcare partner facilities and colleagues to be as successful as possible as they prepare to mount their best responses. We are at the table with the hospitals as they plan and prepare to triage and treat sick patients, and with all partners to support their outreach to their communities.
Treatment capacity for the 5% of people who are the most severely ill with COVID-19 will be very limited in Haiti, as it requires advanced life support that is simply not available there. There are treatments, however, that can help the 15% who are moderately ill—assuming there are adequate supply chains, personnel, and health services strategies… all areas requiring support. That is where we look for opportunities to address “capacity gaps” by bringing our resources to bear whenever we can.
As with the cholera epidemic, any amount of treatment capacity will be overwhelmed if transmission is not slowed in the community. So, as we did in 2011, we are working with our partners to enhance their community outreach and education efforts by utilizing the community health workers and other leaders who we have been supporting for years, such as traditional birth attendants.
We hope that Haiti will be spared the worst of this epidemic, but we have to prepare for it. That this is a global problem makes it clear how we are all in this together, and that the pandemic will not be beat except by an unprecedented level of cooperation and mutual support worldwide. We are humbled by the challenge, but as in the past, we continue to accompany our partners as we rise to the challenge together. We will keep you informed as this unfolds.
Please look out for each other!