by Rupal Ramesh Shah
“Demen nou pral genyen manifestasyon,” said my laboratory colleague while we were working at Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais in Haiti’s Central Plateau. That Haitian Creole sentence translates to “Tomorrow we will have protests.” I responded, “Tet chaje!” That was the common response to express disbelief, shock, and anxiety. For many of us who had spent a considerable amount of time in Haiti ‘manifestasyons’ became a part of the norm. The ‘manifestasyons’ resulted in roadblocks to prevent travel and thus, led to orders from the security officials within the organization to ‘shelter in place.’ Many Americans, like myself, who were working at the hospital were told to stay at our residences unless we were considered essential.
Due to the spread of COVID-19 in our country, many state governors have implemented shelter in place or stay at home orders in order to mitigate the current spread of the disease. This order is based on recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The order, which first began in the state of California in mid-March quickly broadened to include other states throughout the nation. Soon enough employees were asked to work from home, schools and universities were shut down with teachers being asked to conduct classes remotely, and the streets became empty.
As I saw the drastic changes across the country, since the March 11th pandemic declaration from the World Health Organization, it reminded me of a similar time in Haiti. On July 6th, 2018 the government of Haiti announced that the price of gas would increase by 38%, diesel by 47%, and kerosene by 51%. Hours after the announcement, protests broke out in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city of almost 1 million residents. Within several days, the protests spread to major cities in the country including Les Cayes, Cap Haitien, and Mirebalais, where I was stationed. While the protests were not meant to cause harm to people, a majority of the Haitians abided and agreed with what the protesters were demanding, the resignation of the prime minister, Jack Guy Lafontant.
The United States Embassy sent out a security alert during that time. Every organization interpreted and implemented the alert in various ways. Some organizations asked Americans to leave the country while some asked Americans to shelter in place, without any movement. In the days to come, the rules morphed as the level of protests changed. As Americans, we embraced the uncertainties by discovering ways to entertain ourselves and each other. Even with patchy internet, we didn’t have a choice but to obey the orders.
The current stay at home orders across America are asking us to do the same; that is to change our routines and to limit our interactions with each other. The privileges we have in this country, still allow us the opportunity to access the internet easily and anytime. We are able to work remotely, access classes online, and order groceries via the web. Most notably, even while we are expected to distance ourselves physically, we can remain connected virtually.
As a nation, we are adjusting to the various recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as we learn more about COVID-19. At first, gatherings of over 100 people were discouraged. Next, it was recommended that no more than 50 people could gather. The current guidelines state that no more than 10 people can be together.
Until now, the recommendation was for sick people and healthcare workers to wear N95 respirators. Recently, the CDC has published guidelines to encourage all Americans to wear face coverings made of cloth when exposed to the public.
Shelter in place orders often strike fear in people as uncertainty takes over. Fear can result in irrational behaviors such as the hoarding of items like toilet paper. While toilet paper is not directly linked to disease reduction, it may provide some with a sense of security in case the grocery stores shut down indefinitely. Similarly, in Haiti, there were incidences of tires burning during protests. While that doesn’t reflect actions against the government, it does create more fear in people to obey the protesters.
During my time in Haiti, we continued to receive many security alerts, which required us to shelter in place. One thing was obvious; that ‘Peyi Lok,” which means the country is locked, became the way of life for Haitians. Protesters often blocked streets to express their sentiments against the government. If it wasn’t for the steep price increases, then it was to demand justice for the country’s journalists. If it wasn’t for that, then it was to hold the government accountable for the funds donated to rebuild the nation since the earthquake. After each set of protests and days of lockdown Haitians would rise again, walk out of their houses, and continue their activities. Time and time again, I witnessed the Haitian people’s resilience as they adapted to that way of life.
As the stay at home orders in the US have been extended through the beginning of May and we adjust to new guidelines of wearing face cloth coverings in public, I wonder if this will be the new way of life for us? Will we always wear masks when we step outside our homes or will Americans return to gatherings of more than 10 people without face masks in public? Dr. Fauci warned that COVID-19 may be cyclical and may return in the fall to cause a second outbreak. Does that mean that time and time again, we will be faced with similar orders to stay at home until the outbreak is under control?
Public health professionals have mentioned that in order to successfully reach the end of the pandemic, much will need to be done in terms of increased testing, the development of a suitable vaccine, and proper treatment options. Until then, will Americans have to adapt to a new norm?
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a Tanzanian-Indian-American who worked and lived in Haiti (Mirebalais and Fond-des-Blancs) for almost 2 years. She has a background in microbiology and public health. She can be reached at RupalRShah@aol.com.