Haitian discretion and cultural beliefs about coronavirus lead to stigma, hinder prevention efforts 

By Macollvie J. Neel

To Monique Voyard, a long-time Rockland County resident, the talk she hears on local Haitian radio about COVID-19 sounds like history repeating itself.

“People on the radio are saying ‘you can’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend because of this COVID, a husband has to stay in one room and the wife in another room.’ That’s what they used to say in the 70’s and 80’s with AIDS,” said Voyard, a hairdresser who recently attended the funerals of two friends, one of them a confirmed COVID-19 case.

“It makes people feel like they can’t tell anyone they are sick, that they have this disease. It forces them to stay in a little box,” Voyard said. “By the same token, some people are walking around without masks or any protection. I don’t want to see that [history] repeat itself.”

In a community teeming with verboten subjects, coronavirus may become one more item to add to the list for many Haitians. Alongside political views, practicing Vodou, financial standing, HIV/AIDS status, and immigration status, disclosing who has died from or been diagnosed with COVID-19 is another topic many Haitians are keeping close to the vest.

While in keeping with cultural tendencies, concerned Haitian community members and advocates say, staying discreet about COVID-19 might cause even more damage in the long run to an already vulnerable group.

“It’s the way it is with Haitians, [and] that’s been a survival tactic,” said Elsie Saint-Louis, executive director of Haitian American United for Progress. “We’ve infected a lot of people [with coronavirus] because we didn’t say that we were sick. But if you’ve never shared before, this is the time to share.”

People lined up at St. Jerome Church courtyard for masks handouts
members of HAUP handing out bags with masks and pamphlets in Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Pierre-Pierre

Stigma versus secrecy and cultural beliefs

After battling COVID-19 for weeks, one Brooklyn man, 51, is thankful that he survived the rampant disease. But soon after recovering, he began noticing that some people acted differently around him.

“You cough a little bit and they get nervous,” said the youth worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear people would not want to work with him if they know he has had COVID-19. “There is some stigma if people aren’t educated about it. I guess that’s the new norm, especially if they know you had it.”

The Brooklyn survivor added, “You can’t blame them for being afraid. Every day you hear somebody died. It’s one after the other – healthy people, old people, young people, leaders. So, I understand.”

To date, COVID-19 has killed close to 100,000 people in the U.S. alone, according to The New York Times. Of the nearly 21,000 confirmed deaths in New York City as of May 25, 2020, areas with high concentrations of Haitians fell in the category of places with one reported case for every 40 people.

Brooklyn’s East Flatbush-Wingate and Canarsie areas had one reported case for every 37 people, at 4,574 infections and 500 deaths.

In Rockland County, three Haitian-heavy zip codes — Spring Valley, Nanuet, Nyack — are in the top ten cities with the highest reported cases. The three combined have had nearly 4,000 confirmed cases, more than one-third of the county’s 13,000 cases as of May 22. Total deaths stood at 618.

Over in New Jersey, cities like Elizabeth, Roselle, Irvington, Linden, and Hillside have likewise been affected. According to the state, of the 155,000 confirmed cases and 11,144 deaths, Elizabeth alone accounts for about 10% of that toll, with 15,218 reported cases and 1,024 deaths.

Marcorel Eugene, a retired driver in Hillside, N.J., suspects that coronavirus killed about a dozen friends and acquaintances in nearby Elizabeth, Roselle, and Irvington. He spoke with the family members of four friends fell ill with the COVID-19 symptoms, were hospitalized on ventilators, then died. When he asked about sharing their names publicly, the responses did not surprise him.

“They all declined,” said Eugene, 77. “Haitians are very discreet, especially when it comes to illness. In our culture, even though we’ve lived here and assimilated into American culture, there are those of us, especially the older ones, who carry on with everything in secret.”

Of the families Eugene approached, one told him the loved one’s death was a revenge killing of sorts with zombies “sent” after the person.

“It’s ignorance,” Eugene said. “It’s truly painful for me to see because a lot of people are dying.”

Saint-Louis said people have taken to referring to COVID-19 and coronavirus as “maladi a,” creole for ‘the disease.’

“That’s a cultural thing, ever since Haitians were in Haiti,” Saint-Louis said. “These are cultural beliefs, and you’re not going to be able to change people’s mindsets in the span of two months.”

People lined up at St. Jerome Church courtyard for masks handouts
members of HAUP handing out bags with masks and pamphlets in Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

Stopping stigma

As the disease continues its march across communities in the U.S. and now in Haiti, bringing with it stigma, public health officials have issued general guidelines to reduce stigma to build resiliency.

CDC recommendations include raising awareness without increasing fear; sharing accurate information about how the virus spreads; and quickly communicating the risk — or lack of risk — from associations with products, people, and places.

Haitians need an additional layer of targeted information, Saint Louis said. It needs it now so the community can be positioned to help survivors grapple with mental health issues, financial assistance for individuals and small businesses, families or orphans who need support, and fallout from the impending toll of COVID-19 on Haiti.

“We have a responsibility to look at the diversity of our community and speak a language that’s common so we can talk to everybody at their level,” Saint Louis said. “It’s teaching people that we’re in this together. It’s not a Haitian thing, a Haiti thing. Everyone is at risk.”

Macollvie J. Neel, a writer and communications consultant, serves as executive editor of The Haitian Times. She is the founder of Comms Maven LLC, a consultancy that helps mission-driven professionals and organizations tell their stories in workplaces and media spaces.

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