Public health concern

How social factors affect life: a health history

The morning breeze filled the room, warmed up by the first rays of the sun. That day, Jacqueline was the patient who kept my attention the most with her story. She was shambling as she entered the room, tightly holding an iron cane. The purpose of her appointment at the clinic was a monthly follow-up examination for diabetes and high blood pressure. A sixty-four-year-old mother, Jacqueline is suffering from obesity. She spends her days selling retail fabrics on the bare ground at the “Marché du Port”, familiarly called Gerit in Haitian Creole. Most of the time, her business doesn’t do well and she has to count on her daughter’s generous help. During history taking, as I asked her when did she become aware of her cardiovascular diseases, she started telling me about her life. This is how I seized the power of the determinants of health, these social and economic factors that influence individual and group differences in health status.

As far as her memory goes, it started on a 1987 Sunday morning. This sad November 29, marked by ruthless massacre, was the first Election Day in Haiti after the Duvalier regime. Gendarmes crowded the streets. On her way through the “Ruelle Vaillant”, seeking comestibles to feed her family, Jacqueline brought herself to the bloodbath. To avoid the gunshots, she jumped in the nearest canal and broke her leg bone as she fell. The effects of her broken leg remain to this day prompting her handicap. But on another level, the aftermath of the tragedy was so strong that it triggered emotional disorders in Jacqueline. Shortly after the event, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Jacqueline stared at the ceiling as the memories streamed in front of her eyes. As she counted, the Hyppolite market was her main station back in the 80s. In these times, merchants only had to contribute a small fee to occupy a decent place. Under the mayor’s term, a hygiene service regularly cleaned the place, thanks to the occupants’ contributions. But since 1990, she moved to the Gerit following the orders of a new administration. The aging woman experienced since then, the precarious sanitary conditions and successive arsons which stain the history of the Gerit. Nowadays still leading a hectic way of life, her stress levels have skyrocketed. As the years passed by, she hasn’t even noticed how hastily the country was regressing. When I told her that the general hospital didn’t admit women to give birth for a mere 5 gourdes anymore, she couldn’t help but laugh.

gerit

Desperate merchant after fire destroyed her belongings at Port Market in Port-au-Prince. Source: BBC Pictures

Then, came the January 12. When the earthquake ripped her four-piece house, Jacqueline was left with nothing but courage. She never saw a home in the shelter an NGO provided her, but she still lives in it. Some days, she manages to make it on a 10 gourdes budget, hoping her daughter collects a decent paycheck in the USA. Diabetes hit in late 2010. She confessed: “As age and disease pile up, I don’t plan to rebuild the house. Medications are way too expensive and health is to be guarded like a precious gift”. The day I examined her, she was struggling with a sore foot which is oftentimes an indicator of bad compliance to an appropriate lifestyle and medications in diabetes patients. Her story was written on her foot.

Why does it matter? She did not predict the earthquake nor did she expect the many adversities she went through. But they acted as social, economic and environmental factors which have an important impact on her life and health. Many times, a single factor cannot determine the health issues a person or a community strives with. They prevail as the results of a cascade of events and behaviors which are deeply rooted in history and the way the society is organized. In Haiti, political instabilities and natural disasters played a pivotal role in the onset and development of many health issues. More than two decades after the “Ruelle Vaillant” massacre, the months following the 2011 elections, the cholera epidemic peaked in Haiti. One of the many reasons is the fact that Port-au-Prince was home to many cases and as rioters barred the roads, patients couldn’t arrive at the Cholera Treatment Centers on time.

The story of Jacqueline is similar to Jean’s, a 24-year old patient at the clinic. During a conversation, he affirmed: “I can’t explain why cholera struck me because I thought I was safe.” As scientific data show, the source of the epidemic lies in the unsafe disposal of Nepalese soldiers’ waste. Considering the persistent lack of sanitary infrastructures and the weak health care system, Haitians are more vulnerable than ever. This is factual because the social and political choices and events bear major impact on the population’s health.

For  a prosperous future, a stable society and the improvement of the living conditions represent the key stones. As a matter of fact, it is arduous to deal with bigger challenges like climate change, in a situation dominated by uncertainty, even though it also plays an important role in the health of tropical populations. By influencing the determinants of health, the next generation will be more likely to build a strong nation and plant a seed of reparation for Jacqueline and Jean.

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Social Issue

Beneath the Beautiful Bright Paint Covering Jalouzi

This story first appeared on WoyMagazine – Design by EBMD 

I still remember that November morning, Moise Street in Petion-ville was under reconstruction. Dust filled the air and provoked my nose to sneeze multiple times. It was my first day of work as a doctor in Jalouzi. I decided to walk to get there; that was my way of getting to know this colorful neighborhood I knew very little about. All I had in mind were my brother’s quips likening Jalouzi to Kabul by day and New York City by night.

Jalouzi is an impoverished, overpopulated neighborhood, or what the international media would call a slum, in Port-au-Prince with countless houses stacked on top of each other. It is not unlike many other neighborhoods in places like Carrefour feuilles, Carrefour, la plaine etc. The only thing special about Jalouzi is its proximity to Petion-Ville. The view from Petion-Ville’s hotels and bustling restaurants occupied by tourists, expats and the wealthy is none other than the stacked houses of Jalouzi. Ever since the beginning of Jalouzi en couleurs, a government project to paint the houses of Jalouzi in bright colors, a couple of years prior, the slum had caught the world’s attention. So my heart was filled with excitement to experience this side of Haitian life. Almost a year after my experience there, the memories are still vivid in my mind. Yet Jalouzi remains the media’s cherished story, to the extent that RYOT has recently shot a 5-minute documentary short called “The Painter of Jalouzi” for the release of the iPhone 6S Plus of the mega brand Apple. Much to my disappointment, the movie conveys a good bit of misinformation and heavily clashes with the daily reality of Jalouzi.

It took a visit to the archives of Petion-ville’s Town Hall and to the bureau of the civil protection while researching for a book I am writing about Jalouzi to learn that nobody knows the exact number of people actually living there. I realized then that while the bright colors provided the slums with more visibility, the people remained invisible to the State. The people of Jalouzi welcomed the Jalouzi en couleurs government project simply because these people have nothing; they have no choice but to welcome whatever is offered to them. It is no surprise then, that for many of the patients I discussed the project with, healthcare and running water would have been their top priorities if they were given a choice.

Along the Stenio Vincent street in Jalouzi, three health care centers could be counted as of December 2014. But since my first visit, the one that belongs to the Ministry of Health has been closed. Today, its driveway is occupied by vendors, making it difficult to even be noticed. One of the private centers has packed up and the building has been rented to other businesses. Yet the need for healthcare itself has not diminished one bit. On the contrary, in the midst of this situation, various illnesses have arised. Why? Because poverty leaves people extremely vulnerable.

There is no reliable running water in Jalouzi. On the days I reached Jalouzi by foot, I climbed along the slippery steep stairs where women and children carry buckets of water on their heads. Unfortunately, they can only get this water from trucks with water tanks that come once or twice a week, depending on how business is. In the rainy season, there is no clear distinction between the trash and the walkways. Therefore, the soles of people’s feet become public transport for germs which end up straight inside their homes, the stacks of chaotic construction. In the marketplace, food is sold on the floor, meat is covered with flies, the sanitation conditions are dire and precarious.

A mother confessed one day, in the examination room: “All the problems I have go beyond the bright color of my house.” As her issues accumulated, she ran out of money to pay the rent, solely relying on family based in the United States. Her problems, which are closer to the rule rather than the exception, could not be alleviated nor transformed by a paint job. Just as her constant headache did not go away with the makeup she wore that day. Throughout its narration, RYOT’s documentary depicts a delusional image of what life is in Petion-ville’s Jalouzi, which is far from being Haiti’s largest slum, contrary to what they report. Its transformation is only superficial, and the ultimate beneficiaries remain the spectators, foreigners or locals, enjoying the view of Jalouzi’s brightly painted houses from a distance.

In spite of its worldwide reach, “The Painter of Jalouzi” has failed to call for real transformation in people’s lives. To be more accurate, the short film might as well had depicted the real painter of Jalouzi as an outsider. Someone far from the reality of the neighborhood, working in the slums during the day, and returning to relax in his suite at the Royal Oasis Hotel in Petion-Ville at night. This is a missed opportunity to raise awareness on the very real issues of healthcare, education, clean water, energy and human dignity. The government’s Jalouzi en Couleurs project has failed the people of Jalouzi. Why don’t we build schools in the name and memory of Préfète Duffault? Why don’t we push the Ministry of Health reopen its health center? Does it help to apply lipstick to a pig, or to disguise the misery and hunger of the most vulnerable? By blinding ourselves from the suffering of others, one day we might end up being the victims of our own farce.

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