COVID-19: Haiti is vulnerable, but the international community can help

Doctors Without Borders, other groups urged to mobilize


Do you want to know what keeps us up at night? As 4th-year medical students born, raised, and living in Haiti, we worry about the impact of COVID-19 on our patients.

The pandemic has shaken the world, and Haiti is no exception.

Michael St. Jean (left) and Schneider Dorcela recharge after observing an interventional cardiology procedure. Courtesy Schneider Dorcela

Michael St. Jean (left) and Schneider Dorcela recharge after watching an interventional cardiology procedure.

It has taken several months for the disease to spread, and it began with two confirmed cases, one from France and the other from Belgium, on March 19.1 Much of the spread of COVID-19 in Haiti has been tied to workers returning from the Dominican Republic. As of June 29, Haiti had 5,975 confirmed cases and 105 deaths.2 Of course, those numbers sound minuscule, compared with those in the United States, where the number of deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 100,000 several weeks ago. But the population of Haiti is 30 times smaller than that of the United States, and Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. We have watched in horror as the virus has ravaged marginalized groups in the United States and worry that it will do the same in our own country.

Just as the Haitian Ministry of Health worked with various groups to reach the 1-year free of cholera mark in Haiti, groups such as Doctors Without Borders must mobilize to rein in COVID-19.

Community transmission rapid

After the first two cases were confirmed, a state of health emergency was immediately declared. Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and other government officials called for the implementation of several measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Schools, universities, clinical training programs, vocational centers, factories, airports, and ports, except for the transport of goods, were all ordered to close until further notice. Gatherings of larger than 10 people were banned. A curfew from 8 p.m. EST time to 5 a.m. EST was imposed. Measures such as those encouraged by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as hand washing, physical distancing, and staying at home were also encouraged by the Haitian Ministry of Health. Mask wearing in public places was deemed mandatory.

The latest testing data show that community spread has been occurring among the Haitian population at a rapid rate. According to Jean William Pape, MD, Haiti’s top infectious diseases expert and founder of GHESKIO, an iconic infectious disease center that cares for people with HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis, a COVID-19 simulation from Cornell University in New York shows that about 35% of the Haitian population will be infected by the end of August 2020. A simulation by the University of Oxford (England) paints an even more dire picture. That simulation shows that 86% of the population could be infected, More than 9,000 additional hospital beds would be needed, and 20,000 people would be likely to die from COVID-19, Dr. Pape said in an interview with Haiti’s Nouvelliste newspaper.3

Medical response

We know that there is a global shortage of health care workers,4 and Haiti is no exception. According to a 2018 report from the Haitian Ministry of Health, the country has 11,775 health care professionals, including about 3,354 medical doctors, to care for more than 11 million people. That translates to about 23.4 physicians per 100,000.5

The pandemic has led some members of this already anemic health care workforce to stay home because of a lack of personal protective equipment. Others, because of reduced hospital or clinic budgets, have been furloughed, making the COVID-19 national health emergency even harder to manage. The rationing of electricity and limited access to clean water6 in some areas are other complications that undermine our ability to provide quality care.

But a severe health care shortage is not the only challenge facing Haiti. It spends about $131 U.S. per capita, which makes Haiti one of most vulnerable among low- and middle-income countries in the world. As a poor country,7 its health care infrastructure is among the most inadequate and weakest. Prior to COVID-19, medical advocacy groups already had started movements and strikes demanding that the government improve the health care system. The country’s precarious health care infrastructure includes a lack of hospital beds, and basic medical supplies and equipment, such as oxygen and ventilators.8 The emergence of COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation.

Clinical training programs have been suspended, many doctors and nurses are on quarantine, and some hospitals and clinics are closing. We have witnessed makeshift voodoo clinics built by Haitian voodoo leaders to receive, hospitalize, and treat COVID-19 patients through rituals and herbal remedies. In some areas of the country, residents have protested against the opening of several COVID-19 treatment and management centers.

Unique cultural challenges

Public health officials around the world are facing challenges persuading citizens to engage in behaviors that could protect them from the virus.

Just as in America, where many people opt to not wear face coverings9,10 despite the public health risks, deep distrust of the Haitian government has undermined the messages of President Moïse and public health officials about the role of masks in limiting the spread of COVID. We see large numbers of unmasked people on the streets in the informal markets every day. Crammed tap-taps and overloaded motorcycles are moving everywhere. This also could be tied to cultural attitudes about COVID that persist among some Haitians. For example, many people with signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are afraid of going to the hospital to get tested and receive care, and resort to going to the voodoo clinics. Along with rituals, voodoo priests have been serving up teas with ingredients, including moringa, eucalyptus, ginger, and honey to those seeking COVID-19 care in the centers. The voodoo priests claim that the teas they serve strengthen the immune system.

In addition, it is difficult for poor people who live in small quarters with several other people to adhere to physical distancing.11

Stigma and violence

Other barriers in the fight against COVID-19 in Haiti are stigma and violence. If widespread testing were available, some Haitians would opt not to do so – despite clear signs and symptoms of the infection. Some people who would get tested if they could are afraid to do so because of fears tied to being attacked by neighbors.

When Haitian University professor Bellamy Nelson and his girlfriend returned to Haiti from the United States in March and began experiencing some pain and fever, he experienced attacks from neighbors, he said in an interview. He said neighbors threatened to burn down his house. When an ambulance arrived at his house to transport him to a hospital, it had to drive through back roads to avoid people armed with rocks, fire, and machetes, he told us. No hospital wanted to admit him. Eventually, Professor Nelson self-quarantined at home, he said.

In another incident, a national ambulance center in Gonaïves, a town toward the northern region of Haiti, reportedly was vandalized, because COVID-19 equipment and supplies used to treat people had been stored there. Hospital Bernard Mevs, along with many other hospitals, was forced by the area’s residents to suspend the plan to open a center for COVID-19 management. Threats to burn down the hospitals caused the leaders of the hospitals to back down and give up a plan to build a 20-bed COVID-19 response center.

Maternal health

Another concern we have about the pandemic is the risk it could be to pregnant women. On average, 94,000 deaths occur annually in Haiti. Out of this number, maternal mortality accounts for 1,000. In 2017, for every 100,000 live births for women of reproductive age from 15 to 49 years old, 480 women died. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, 95 women died per 100,000 that same year. In the United States, 19 died, and in Norway, no more than 2 died that year.12

Some of the primary factors contributing to the crisis are limited accessibility, inadequate health care facilities, and an inadequate number of trained health care practitioners; low percentages of skilled attendants at deliveries and of prenatal and postnatal visits; and high numbers of high-risk deliveries in nonqualified health facilities.

During the COVID-19 national health emergency, with most hospitals reducing their health care personnel either because of budget-related reasons or because they are on quarantine, this maternal-fetal health crisis has escalated.

One of the biggest hospitals in Jacmel, a town in the southern region of Haiti, has stopped its prenatal care program. In Delmas, the city with the highest incidence and prevalence of COVID-19, Hôpital Universitaire de la Paix has reduced this program to 50% of its capacity and gynecologic care has been completely suspended. Hôpital St. Luc, one of the first hospitals in the western region of Haiti to open its doors to care for COVID-19 patients, has recently shut down the entire maternal-fetal department.

So, access to prenatal and postnatal care, including the ability to deliver babies in health care institutions, is significantly reduced because of COVID-19. This leaves thousands of already vulnerable pregnant women at risk and having to deliver domestically with little to no health care professional assistance. We worry that, in light of the data, more women and babies will die because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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