By J.O. Haselhoef
Seven men in matching red t-shirts walk among the vendors in Thursday’s open-air market in Seguin, a village in Southwest Haiti. Each man wears a protective mask and talks about preventing the spread of Covid-19 to anyone who will listen. The backs of their t-shirts say, Moun Segen ak pwopte nap konbat kowona viris. “The people of Seguin with cleanliness canfight Coronavirus.”
These volunteers began addressing small groups in the area in March, warning them about the pandemic that was headed toward Haiti. Their message included the protocols each individual and family should take to prevent infection — avoid kissing and hugging, wash your hands, use an elbow for a sneeze.
At the end of April, an anonymous donor gave them money to purchase materials to construct simple handwashing stations for the market, where the source of water is some distance away. The volunteer group also ordered and distributed 650 hand-sewn masks from a local seller. They gave them to marketplace vendors who have consistent and repeated contact with the public.
Elira Antoine, 27, leads the group of volunteers, which has met and done community service for some years. They call themselves La Grande Famille du Sud Est. Antoine, like many of the group, came home at the new year break from school. Soon after, the pandemic cancelled all his classes and he did not return
The volunteers received little response from the public during their initial outreach. The interest picked up as the health crisis moved closer to Haiti. As Antoine handed out single masks, vendors asked him for a second for their spouse or friend. His small inventory didn’t allow for that luxury so, “I encouraged them to use the first as an example and make another,” he said. “Some did.”
The death toll in Haiti stands at 94 with more than 5,000 cases reported. There is no testing done in the Haitian countryside nor is there a medical facility in the region where local cases can beofficially tallied.
Antoine and his team are out of money for additional hand washing stations or masks, but they continue to talk to anyone who will listen about limiting their physical contact and making masks out of any material they can find.
He is well aware that his group’s efforts are a tiny drop in an immense sea, but, “I have nothing to give but information,” he says. “I hope that can help.”
J.O. Haselhoef is a free-lance writer based in Milwaukee, Wi. She co-founded and directed Yonn Ede Lot, a nonprofit that partnered with local associations in Lamontay, Haiti.