Returning to the U.S. last week on one of the final flights from Haiti before they were halted for the indefinite future really brought home to me once again how supporting and protecting each other as a global family is in our “enlightened self-interest.” An epidemic of the type we are all facing can only be successfully eradicated collectively.
Members of our Maine staff are working from home, and meetings by our Board of Directors, advisers, and others are being held remotely, all in the interest of disrupting and slowing the transmission of COVID-19 in the states. In Haiti, our staff and partners are working tirelessly to inform and encourage people in their communities to slow transmission and to prepare for treating the cases that will require hospitalization. As difficult as those things are proving to be in the U.S., there are even greater challenges in Haiti, where the virus is just getting a foothold (as of today, there are 16 confirmed cases in Haiti, up from 2 confirmed cases reported on March 20). I am moved by the spirit of “konbit”—working together for a common purpose—by which our team and partners are approaching the tasks at hand.
Josaime Clotilde St Jean, RN, our community health program manager, has been training and equipping the community health workers (called agents de santé in Haiti) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to spread important information and advice about how to stay safe using local communication strategies. In Haiti, that means things such as hiring a “mobile”—a pickup truck with large speakers in the bed that moves slowly through neighborhoods projecting a taped message—or walking around neighborhoods with megaphones and handing out pamphlets in Creole. To extend our reach, Miss St Jean is also coordinating with our longtime partner health facilities (Haitian Baptist Convention Hospital, Fort St. Michel health center, ULS) as well as with the staff at C2C (Care to Communities), which supports several health centers in Northern Haiti.
Of course, it is a challenge for people to “shelter in place” when the only way many of them can feed their children is to go to the crowded market to sell their few wares every day, or to “wash their hands frequently” when water and soap are not readily accessible. “Social distancing” is difficult for someone who must live with 6 or more others in a single room. We can look for ways to promote social cohesion at the same time as promoting physical distancing. (For example, in the photo above, note how members of the community in Bande du Nord are observing 1-meter social distancing during an open-hour education forum on COVID-19 prevention.) People can and do invent new ways to greet each other while avoiding shaking hands and kissing on the cheek (which is the customary greeting) and ventilate homes as best they can. We can distribute soap and disinfectant for cleaning hands and surfaces. People have already learned to drink treated water whenever possible. And they can learn the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 as well as when and how to seek care.
One of our biggest concerns is finding ways to support the workers who are tasked with providing care at our partner facilities. To that end, we are preparing an emergency shipping container to send what we can so that they have the most basic tools and protections to do their work. We are grateful to the Dalton Foundation, a Haitian-American surgeon from New York City, and others who are sending very important materials that are needed now by our partners and will be included in this container. We are also grateful to pilots from Archangel Airborne who have volunteered to fly materials into Haiti if needed.
As this unfolds, those of us based in the U.S. will continue to do our part to support our neighbors and communities in this time, and to support our global neighbors and communities that we have come to know so well in Haiti. We can—and will—do both.
Please be safe. Look out for each other. And please join us in helping others respond in their own communities as well.