Thoughts on Haiti
Having just returned from a medical relief effort, I cannot get my mind off of Haiti. The experience continues to haunt me, brings tears to my eyes and overwhelms me with emotion. At the same time I feel anger for the unnecessary suffering and misery that this country has dealt its people. The common man in Haiti, has a life expectancy of 50 yrs, and an average daily wage of $2, when he can find a job. Although he has nothing, he still manages to walk with pride and exude friendliness and kindness. (This is true in the countryside and smaller cities, as I was not in a large urban area.)The children are beautiful, friendly and innocent. The women work hard trying to scratch out a subsistence living. The people are clean, although they are ridden with malnutrition, congenital and acquired health issues. It is not money for which they occasionally hold out their hands, but for food. And when you hand them a sandwich, a small snack, or a bag of trail mix, the smile of gratitude, makes you wish you had more in your back pack to give.
The economy seems to be one based on bartering. Charcoal, the primary cooking fuel and the manufacture of which may have contributed to the devastating deforestation of the county, is traded for rice. Sugar cane is traded for beans and a chicken or pig or goat for something else, and on, and on. The ubiquitous burning of charcoal leaves a haze of irritating smoke over the populated areas, that is largely responsible for the chronic complaints of cough, asthma and burning eyes.
Anger? Yes, for it is hard for an American to comprehend a country without any sense of organization or infrastructure. Chaos and inefficiency rule. There is no running water, unless you count the river, which is full of people bathing, doing their laundry, digging sand, dumping garbage, etc. Even the hospital has no water! Can you imagine a hospital without the basics of water? There is no electricity, unless you have a solar panel, or diesel and a generator. Even with these, the power is turned off around 5 PM. This includes public facilities such as the airport and hospital. Voluntary surgeons are ready to work through the night to save lives and limbs, but are told to leave at 5 PM, and the power shut down.
There is no organization and the country smacks you with total chaos. Nothing runs as expected or according to any sense of planning. There seems to be no interest in public welfare or the suffering that is universal, rather than occasional. I presume there are some people who have better living conditions than average. But these “well-to-do” do not seem to have any interest in helping the masses of needy around them. Indeed, in my shallow experience, they seemed to be clearly more interested in themselves than their countryman.
Imagine a hospital filled with people suffering with fractured limbs as well as mind boggling medical issues, covered with flies, and lying in darkened, warm, humid rooms without ventilation. They are tended primarily by their family, who are responsible for feeding them, cleaning them, emptying the bucket under their bed and chasing the flies from them. When you walk by, they look at you with hope and expectancy for any sense of relief. Your training tells you what to do, but your efforts are impeded by locked supplies, resistant nursing staff and hospital administration.
Although there are many foreigners trying to deliver aide to this population, their efforts are met with incomprehensible delays and hurdles from those in charge, who do not seem to mind the suffering around them. Oh, the massive relief effort has provided food and masses of medical supplies. However these supplies are not available to the medial teams, and relief efforts. These desperately needed supplies are warehoused and locked away, by customs or hospital officials. To access them, you need to run from one authority to another wasting precious time and energy at the expense of suffering and death. The UN and the US military try to assist, but remember they are there to help in a sovereign country and have very limited authority to act. Many religious organizations have made significant strides in their attempts to serve the people, and move them into the 21st century. But their efforts are not enough by themselves, and require country leadership.
It has been hard to have experienced this without developing a mixture of love, sadness, frustration and anger. Haiti is a “country” without any semblance of structure. Perhaps this devastating earthquake is a moment, not to start rebuilding, but to build a country from scratch, with a new economy, educational efforts, public health, and perhaps a whole new social culture. This will require a totally unselfish political and engineering leadership, which hopefully can arise from the ashes that now cover this country.