Lately, a spotlight has been placed on the United Nations in Haiti. Outgoing Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon has delivered pivotal statements at the General Assembly and via the Miami Herald concerning the UN’s response to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Right now is as good a time as any to remember the critical work that has already been done to eliminate the disease, long before Ban Ki-Moon’s big statement. Right now is as good a time as any to remember the fact that Haiti’s future lies only in our own hands.
Before 2010, cholera, which mostly affected Asia and Europe centuries ago, did not exist in Haiti. It was imported from Nepal in October 2010 because of the continuous dumping of feces into a river by UN peacekeepers based in Meyes, near Mirebalais, in central Haiti. Weak hygiene and sanitation conditions since the beginning of the last decade, partly due to political instability, facilitated the rapid spread of the disease to the rest of the country. This shows the UN’s direct responsibility in the emergence of the disease in Haiti, a claim which epidemiologists have backed, and which the UN has fiercely denied and hidden over the last few years.
In 2016 the United Nations has suddenly changed their posture in regards to their role in the spread of cholera in Haiti and their response to the epidemic. The first hint at this change of heart came in a report by Philip Alston, a UN adviser criticizing the organization for its disastrous response. “The UN’s explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than a moral responsibility is a disgrace,” he stated. In early December this year, 6 years and thousands of deaths later, Ban Ki-Moon apologized to the Haitian people for the role his organization played in bringing cholera to Haiti.
In his Miami Herald Op-Ed, Ban Ki-Moon revealed the outline for what he called a “new approach to right a wrong” in Haiti. This approach revolves around intense response to outbreaks, reparations to the victims’ families, and long term development strategies to provide safe water to the population. As a physician familiar with the Haitian government’s already laid out plan to eliminate cholera by 2022 and the ongoing instrumental work of human rights advocates to hold the UN accountable, I struggled to find what was new about this proposal. Is the UN simply publicly parroting the existing national plan to eliminate cholera, or are they finally heeding the victims’ unceasing call for justice?
At the beginning of 2013, while the United Nations was still denying responsibility for the outbreak, the Haitian government with support from various international partners, initiated a 10-year cholera elimination plan, with a short-term component ending in 2016. At the time, many criticized this plan as being too broad. Among other things, it aimed to guarantee access to drinking water for 80% of the population. That was quite impossible in the planned timespan, given the lack of resources.
In fact, in 2014, Haiti came close to eliminating cholera. Were it not for repeated cases of vandalism on water systems in several regions among other factors, the strategies put in place would have been successful. The Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and the National Direction for Drinking Water and Sanitation (DINEPA) have learned from these experiences, and launched the mid-term part of the plan in August 2016 (before the UN’s change of stance ) with support from partners including UNICEF. This part focuses on axes similar to what Ban Ki-Moon introduced as the UN’s new approach: water and sanitation, healthcare services and management, epidemiological surveillance, health promotion, hygiene and nutrition.
While he did acknowledge the ongoing efforts against the cholera epidemic, the public health orientation Ban Ki-Moon outlined in his op-ed is not different from what has been laid as the basis for every actor in the national plan. His proposal uses the language and solutions proposed by advocates that the UN spent the last 6 years denying. Looking back, the path we have traveled in this fight is paved with lessons for Haiti as well as for the world. The General Assembly has agreed to support the new plan to eliminate cholera in Haiti, but I will not forget where the crucial work began and continues. As I continue my travels through various Haitian communities as a Haitian public health researcher or for personal activities, the notion that Haiti’s future lies only in our hands will remain a dear mantra.
Many thanks to Nathalie Cerin for the fantastic editing of this article.