Gabriella Jean-Baptiste, 20, took her oncology exam at Haiti’s Mount Everest University in Port-au-Prince while battling the symptoms last week. She was struggling to breathe and coughing. That day, she also had a fever and lost her sense of smell.
Jean-Baptiste thinks she might have contracted COVID-19, but she said she couldn’t know for sure since she wasn’t tested. It costs 6000 gourdes, or USD $66, to get tested at most locations, an amount she said she could not afford.
Jean-Baptiste fully recovered over the weekend. But meanwhile, many other people in Port-au-Prince have been experiencing the same symptoms. For many of those who were tested, the results came out positive like soccer star Steeven Saba and ex-senator Jean Robert Bossé. Fifteen of those people who caught the virus died over the weekend.
Up until the beginning of May, Haiti was recognized for having a low number of cases when experts predicted otherwise. The number of daily cases abruptly increased from about 10 to 70 in May and went as high as 131 on May 21.
“It happened all of sudden,” said Jean-Baptiste, who had stopped taking masking and social distancing precautions because the cases were so low. “You wouldn’t have thought it would’ve been Haiti. Corona took us by surprise. Haitians didn’t believe in it because it wasn’t spreading as fast as in other countries.”
The number of cases started to rise because the Brazilian and English variants detected in Haiti are more infectious and more severe, Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape said. People are also more at risk because they caught the virus before during the previous waves that were less alarming.
“Most people who were infected with COVID have lost their protective antibodies, hence are vulnerable,” Pape said. “There was an arrival of new, more infectious variants. This wave appears to be more severe in infectivity and in causing more severe disease, more deaths.”
As of May 21, the ministry of health counted 14,037 confirmed cases, 2,076 people hospitalized and 292 deaths.
“The number of infected people should be multiplied by 20,” Pape said about the reported statistics. “The data regarding mortality is accurate.”
Some residents like Jean-Baptiste have not gotten tested because they have to pay. The number of cases is also inaccurate because some hospitals and health centers have not been submitting their numbers, said Dr. Lauré Adrien, general director of the health ministry.
The thought of COVID-19 rapidly spreading in Haiti strikes fear in many because it is a developing country. However, Haiti had been prepared since January.
“We had over 3,000 dedicated COVID beds [in January],” Pape said. “Centers will need to be activated.”
To curb the spread, President Jovenel Moïse declared a state of emergency Saturday for eight days. He then issued a decree Monday, banning all outdoor activities between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. during the remaining of those eight days.
Moïse’s decree also made wearing face masks mandatory, and required all organizations to do temperature checks and have handwashing stations. Employers must also cut the number of staff on duty by half. People in public places must be 1.5 meters, about five feet, apart from each other.
“Today, more than ever, respecting the restrictions is imposed on everyone,” Moïse tweeted Saturday.
Majority of the residents weren’t following Haiti’s COVID protocols but during this severe wave, more people are wearing masks. Some businesses are denying entry to people not wearing masks. Many schools and businesses also shut their doors temporarily.
Mistrust and the lack of precautions
On the other hand, many Haitians are still not following the restrictions. Public transportation vans, for example, are still at full capacity with 12 people sitting right next to each other—some unmasked.
Elsewhere, the Haitian National Championship is still underway even after two players, Saba and André Amy, tested positive. The constitutional referendum is still scheduled for Jun. 27, the Provisional Electoral Council announced in a statement Wednesday.
Some residents, although they believe in the virus, are reluctant to follow the restrictions because they think government officials are imposing them for their own interests.
“Who’s going to go outside after 10 o’clock at night in the capital?,” said Phineus Jean Gaillard, a sophomore at the University of Haiti. “Why are they talking about corona again? Is it to get money from WHO or to make people stay home and vote for the referendum?”
Last week, the health ministry accepted a donation of 130,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the World Health Organization (WHO). Officials haven’t mentioned yet when the vaccine will arrive.
Many Haitians have said they won’t take it or are hesitant to do so because of the potential side effects
“I’m not going to say I will take it,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I’m not going to take something that’s supposed to make me feel better but is going to make me worse. I’m going to think about it before taking it. I rather be cautious than take the vaccine.”
However, Dr. Pape said the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective against the new variants in Haiti.
After suffering COVID-like symptoms, Jean-Baptiste said she’s being cautious again, just like she was when the pandemic first started in Spring 2020.
“Nobody wants to lay in bed sick,” Jean-Baptiste said.
Samuel Louis contributed to this article.