By Joyce Bassil Zerka
While the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic progressed much more slowly in Haiti than rest of the world, it appears that a recent second wave has caused an increase in panic as cases surge. As of May 20, Haiti had reported more than 13,500 confirmed cases and 276 deaths.
Until now, it seemed that Haiti had been spared, as it had some of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the world. There are different possible explanations for this, one of them being that Haiti’s population is fairly young with a median age of 23 years old, according to the UN World Population Ageing 2015 Report. But because COVID-19 was not the health crisis for Haiti that we expected, most Haitians do not feel that they need to get a COVID-19 vaccine. More than that, the country is currently facing major political and civil unrest that have led to high rates of unemployment, inflation, as well as increased food insecurity.
Though the total number of reported cases are widely believed to be underreported due to limited testing and reluctance to get tested or treated for COVID-19, the reality is that a second wave can overburden a weak health care system that is already fragile, similar to what is happening in India.
This is made worse by the fact that Haiti has not received a single dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. It wasn’t until recently, on May 19, that Haiti authorized the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable access to immunization throughout the world. Haiti was scheduled to receive 756,000 doses of the vaccine at no cost to 20% of its population, but the government’s delay in completing the necessary steps in a timely fashion delayed shipment for months.
And while U.S. President Joe Biden recently took an important step in expanding global vaccine access by waiving certain intellectual property protections around COVID-19 vaccines, it presents its own challenges for a country like Haiti. With low COVID-19 cases and very few related deaths, the general population does not feel the need to get vaccinated. Also, with high mistrust of the government and lack of education related to COVID-19, the majority of the people are not keen on taking anything given by the government, even if it is free.
However, the vaccine should be accessible to Haitians who would like to get it, and it is the responsibility of the government to make that a priority. In a country where only 40% of children in Haiti are fully vaccinated, the government must take a stand on immunization and make it a priority for its people in order to prevent diseases that are preventable and treatable by vaccination.
Even with the good news of the expected vaccines, the reality is that a two-dose vaccine option like the AstraZeneca vaccine will not be a perfect solution. Haiti’s government believes that even if they were to successfully administer a first dose, its population will not come back for a second dose.
There is also the challenge of storing the vaccines, along with the logistics behind the distribution, which the government has not yet figured out. With the World Health Organization granting emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it stands as a better option for Haiti. Besides the single-dose advantage, this vaccine can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for three months, not requiring freezer storage that isn’t available at most health center facilities across Haiti.
Nongovernmental healthcare partners in Haiti, like Care 2 Communities (a partner of Haiti’s Ministry of Health), recognize that it is our duty and privilege to support the government’s vaccine initiative. We stand ready to work together by providing public health and educational campaigns to inform communities of the benefits of the COVID-19 while addressing varying myths and misconceptions around it. We are prepared to make use of the existing solar-powered fridges in our clinics to store and distribute the vaccine in order to increase access to COVID-19 vaccine coverage in Haiti.
Joyce Bassil Zerka is the communications & development manager at Care 2 Communities (C2C), a community-based, social enterprise clinic network that delivers reliable, affordable, high-quality primary care through a public-private partnership in Haiti. To learn more, visit care2communities.org.