By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com

The coronavirus pandemic has upended lives in Haitian communities across the globe. Its emotional, economic and health toll has been felt by millions. Now, one year after the March 2020 shutdowns in the U.S. and Haiti, The Haitian Times will produce a series of stories on how the community has weathered these unprecedented times.

New York City, the heartbeat of the Haitian diaspora, became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States one year ago— with neighborhoods like Flatbush and East Flatbush reporting over 51% of coronavirus tests coming back positive. By July 2020, when the virus peaked in South Florida, St. Fort’s Funeral Home based in North Miami Beach was seeing as many as 20 deaths per week due to COVID-19.

One year after the pandemic brought normal life to a screeching halt nationwide, Evans St. Fort, chief executive officer of the funeral home, said he now sees a weekly maximum of two coronavirus deaths. The count, while lower, is a reminder of an ebbing pandemic that still poses a lethal threat. 

For many, the emotional toll of losing loved ones still lingers. 

“We’re dealing with death that no one was ready for,” St. Fort said. “So it’s definitely something that’s impacting our community.”

As the pandemic spread throughout the nation, public health measures prevented Haitian-Americans from grieving as they normally would, exacerbating the emotional toll. Nonprofits and health professionals alike formed coalitions to help people adapt to caring for sick loved ones, access critical resources like food and overcome language barriers. Business owners, too, came together to help each other access government assistance programs after the economy slowed, and later, to adopt new digital technologies. 

As they recover from a winter with social distancing restrictions and alarming coronavirus spikes that forced people to stay home, entrepreneurs have reported that business revenue remains far below normal levels. Countless businesses have also struggled to access federal assistance programs. 

“The winter was bad because [officials] closed indoor dining, they didn’t have outdoor, and we were just doing to-go [orders],” said Wesly Jean-Simon said, co-owner of Zanmi Restaurant. “We’re just bringing employees back now.” 

Restaurants like Zanmi got denied after facing long wait times for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Jean-Simon said. So far this year, financial constraints, he said, have forced the restaurant to put many of its events on hold.

While revenues and jobs in some industries have yet to fully bounce back, the community response to the coronavirus pandemic has changed in some significant ways. For one, promoting access to vaccines has taken on premier importance since the first two received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December.

Nonprofits, from Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP) to the Haitian-American Alliance (HAA), have held virtual forums in English and Creole to encourage vaccination and debunk vaccine myths. 

Last March, when HAA formed a Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force composed of medical professionals and community organizations, the nonprofit connected vulnerable seniors with food assistance and offered Creole-language guidance on COVID-19 prevention and recovery. 

“We’re really focusing on the vaccine right now,” said Yolette Williams, HAA’s president, who helped form the task force. “We’re providing information to people on where they can get vaccinated, how to make appointments, where to make appointments.”

In Miami-Dade County, organizations like the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center have also educated community members about the vaccine. 

While more community education efforts are needed, St. Fort said he has seen vaccine uptake grow in the Haitian community. More sites have opened, he said, and community members have been forced to reckon with the painful reality of losing loved ones.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and out of these doors and never thought they’d be here in a million years,” St. Fort said. “They’re not willing to take the chance anymore, because they’ve seen what the effects of COVID are.” 

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Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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