Health ministry workers arrive to check on a group of Haitians who were deported from the United States, at a hotel where they will be quarantined as a measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Tabarre, Haiti, Thursday, April 23, 2020. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

For more than a year, as the world battled high volumes of COVID-19 infections and deaths, Haiti stood out as a mysterious outlier with its relatively few reported cases of coronavirus. Now, as most countries prepare for a post-pandemic world, with safer norms, Haiti seems to be approaching the crisis levels other nations are leaving behind.

To exacerbate matters, Haiti only has 200 and 240 COVID-19 beds for the country’s 11.5 million people, the country’s health minister said in a recent press conference. Put another way, that’s one hospital bed per 48,000 to 58,000 people, or one per 53,000 on average.

The lack of infrastructure has prompted public health officials to sound the alarm as cases began to rise last month. 

“The country will need additional health capacity,” said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, regional director for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO), in a media briefing last week. “There is no time to waste.”

For the first 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of cases were low. Scientists marveled at how low in cases Haiti remained, even as people returned to a normal life with no mask or sanitizing protocols observed. Large gatherings are common and Haitian National Championships soccer matches have been taking place without social distancing and masks. 

In jest, many Haitians in Haiti and the diaspora often joked that Haitian lwil maskriti and other home remedies made them immune to the respiratory virus.

Then in May, the number of coronavirus cases abruptly rose to about 70 per day due to the spread of the more infectious English and Brazilian variants, officials said then. News of prominent people dying from the disease began to appear, bringing the number of deaths to 325 as of Jun. 1, 52 of them in May. The health ministry also counted 15,435 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.

“I am particularly concerned about the situation in Haiti, where sources are reporting sharp increases in cases, hospitalisations and deaths in recent weeks,” Dr. Etienne said.

Two hospitals have announced they are saturated, a term meaning they are overrun and no longer have capacity to take in COVID-19 patients.

GHESKIO, a clinic and medical research center based in Bicentennaire, Port-au-Prince, only has 20 COVID beds. The center doesn’t have ventilators so patients who are in need of them are referred to other sites. 

It is unclear how many sites have reached capacity and are not reporting it yet or how the rest of the country is faring with hospitalizations outside the capital.

Meanwhile, Haiti has gotten closer to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine through COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, (COVAX). The organization has sent 17.6 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to help curb the spread of the virus. The quantity is not nearly enough, Etienne said. She added that some low-income countries are struggling to cover even their health workers.

Violence complicates getting hospital help

Most people were still not following COVID protocols for a variety of reasons. 

To many in volatile situations, following coronavirus protocols isn’t as high a priority as their physical safety amid ongoing violence. Scores of residents of Martissant and Delmas, areas in Port-au-Prince, fled from their homes in large groups because of gang attacks. Many of those left homeless are going unmasked and live in the streets.

Some Port-au-Prince residents also skip travel through Martissant to get to the hospital nearby, according to Matin Debat, a radio news show.

But even if traveling to hospitals was safe for the residents of the Southern part of Port-au-Prince, they lack options. Two hospitals in Port-au-Prince are saturated, Canapé Vert Hospital and St. Luke Hospital.

“The Steering Committee encourages patients who are suffering COVID-19 symptoms to visit other health facilities,” Canapé Vert Hospital’s statement reads.

Some other health facilities equipped to admit COVID-19 patients are the  government-run Delmas 2 COVID-19 hospital, GHESKIO and the University Hospital of Mirebalais, a central department town about 35 miles north of Port-au-Prince. 

Some residents who had traveled to hospitals died in ambulances because the hospitals were full of capacity, according to Miami Herald.

Many others who have the symptoms stay home and take home remedies such as ginger tea.

Officials response

To prevent further casualties, Haiti’s health ministry purchased 1,600 filled oxygen tanks and 200 empty oxygen tanks June 2. The government also bought fuel and two generators to keep the equipment functioning, since Haiti does not have electricity around the clock.

To add to the government’s purchases, a GoFundMe page was created last week for St. Luke Hospital to buy oxygen tanks. As of Monday, $19,055 of the goal of $100,000 was raised. 

GHESKIO is also raising funds for 100 additional COVID beds. 

In addition to equipment, Dr. Etienne said, leaders have been sending mixed messages about the virus and must unite to stop it from spreading. “We can’t do this alone,” she said. “We need leaders to prioritize the decisions required to stop this virus in its track.” 

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Onz Chery is a Haiti correspondent for The Haitian Times. Chery started his journalism career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He later wrote for First Touch, local soccer leagues in New York and Elite Sports New York before joining The Haitian Times in 2019.

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