Politics and Cholera in Haiti

International and national news outlets have been reporting Haiti’s cholera outbreak. According to the BBC, the death toll has reached nearly 300, and so far at least 4,000 people have been treated for infection. January’s earthquake had serious and lasting impacts on Haiti’s infrastructure and sanitation conditions, so the emerging stories of public health problems are not so much news as a feared but predictable result.

Sadly, the virus will not go away any time soon. Public health officials expect that more Haitians will be infected, and that many more may die due to rapid dehydration, which happens within hours when left untreated. There are simply not enough functioning hospitals, medical personnel and material resources for the number of people in need. Dr. Jon Arbus, the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) said, “Now that cholera has established itself with a strong foothold in Haiti, it’s clear to us that this will not go away for several years.”

Even though this cholera outbreak is a predictable expected outcome, it wasn’t inevitable. It’s important to explore the events that led to it. Contrary to what many believe, disease outbreaks can be political, and in this case, the U.S. government may have played a key role in producing this public health catastrophe.

The U.S. used its political power to push and block the disbursement of humanitarian loans to Haiti. The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti, a report published by Partners in Health, Zanmi Lasante, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, reveals how U.S. policies have the Haitian people’s access and rights to potable water.

The report explains that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved loans to Haiti for much-needed water projects in 1998, “[a] $54 million loan and a $965,000 grant to improve potable water and sanitation services and to establish a regulatory framework for the development of a waste water service.” However, the U.S., which has 30% of IDB’s voting power, slowed and finally blocked the disbursement of funding. The report suggests that the U.S. had no valid reason to block the disbursement of the loans other than pressuring the Haitian government to oust President Aristide. The disbursement began after President Aristide was ousted, but no significant improvements had been accomplished by 2008.

While the U.S. media continues to portray Haitian people and governmental structures as backwards, almost blaming them for their own misery, Dr. Evan Lyon, a physician that works for Partners in Health in Haiti says, “it’s reasonable to draw a straight line from these loans being slowed down and cut off to the epidemic that emerged a week ago.”

Donating money to organizations like Partners in Health may help Haitians get some of their basic and immediate needs for harm reduction fulfilled, but structural changes are needed to prevent tragedies like this at their root. The reality is that underdevelopment of public health infrastructure, and resulting vulnerability to natural disasters and disease outbreaks, is a global political problem and the Global North holds significant responsibility.

Susana Sánchez, an international student from Costa Rica, works with PopDev as a Research Assistant. She came to the United States to complete her medical degree, and in the process became interested in the social problems that affect Latinos in the United States, particularly undocumented immigrants. She is a fourth-year student at Hampshire College, where she majors in immigration and gender studies. She loves to spend time with her family in New Jersey and dreams of the day she will return to her native Costa Rica to work on public policy and enjoy the country’s beautiful seashore.

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