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Cholera In Haiti Is The UN's Dreadful Legacy

Unlike a natural disaster, it is a preventable and utterly curable disease.
A woman sits next to her daughter as she receives treatment for cholera at the Immaculate Conception Hospital in Les Cayes, Haiti, Nov. 8, 2016.
Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters
A woman sits next to her daughter as she receives treatment for cholera at the Immaculate Conception Hospital in Les Cayes, Haiti, Nov. 8, 2016.

In 2010, Haiti was hit by the two most devastating disasters in its history, an earthquake and the outbreak of cholera. But unlike a natural disaster, cholera is a preventable and utterly curable disease. And before October 2010, not a single case of cholera was found in Haiti. Today, the country is home to the largest cholera epidemic in the world. Since its introduction by UN peacekeepers from Nepal, the Haitian cholera epidemic has left more than 11,500 dead and near one million sickened. These are certainly less than the true figures; the number of dead may be at least three times as high. And the cholera epidemic still continues to kill in Haiti.

According to local newspapers, the very first victim appears to be Rosemond Lorimé, a 21-year old man who was living 200 metres from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) Peacekeeping Camp in Mèye/Meille, a small rural town on the outskirts of Mirebalais, where the spread of the bacteria started.

Lorimé died on Oct. 17, 2010 at the Mirebalais hospital. Almost the entire Lorimé family was infected, including three hospitalized, although Rosemond was the only death. Soon, thousands of people around the country would share his fate.

The Lorimé family borrowed money to pay the funeral costs. The average funeral in Haiti costs close to 5 000 USD which, for many families, is like taking out a mortgage, creating a lifetime of debt.

The Haitian diaspora, as in every emergency, became the first respondent to the cholera crisis. While the national government, with international help, tried to control the disease by limiting fatalities and propagation, it is families that have taken on the responsibilities of caring for the sick, burying the dead, bringing up orphans, paying school fees and rent, and other expenses. The Haitian diaspora has remained the first support to families, and often to friends, in need. The Haitian people, both in Haiti and abroad in places like Canada, have had to carry heavy financial and emotional burdens due to the epidemic cholera.

Only on Dec. 1, 2016, after over six years of denial and cover-up, did the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, finally publicly admit the UN's role in starting the cholera epidemic and ask for forgiveness for all the suffering the UN has caused to the Haitian population. Even as Haitian victims have accepted the UN's apology, they still demand that the UN act in order to eradicate the disease in Haiti and compensate those who are suffering as a result of the UN's negligence.

The UN has also promised a new approach to cholera in Haiti, including a US$200 million investment to mitigate cholera's impact and US$200 million in material assistance to the victims and their families. But, having only raised three per cent of the funds, the UN has so far failed to deliver on this plan. No alternative is offered to Haiti but to wait while the devastating cholera epidemic continues to do its evil work.

In fact, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 4, 2017, according to the Public Health Ministry's statistics, 138 more people had died and more than 12,000 people were infected.

The UN has committed to help Haiti and the Haitian victims. We have their words, but unfortunately, they are words without strong and meaningful action. More than an apology, Haitian cholera victims need individual compensation for their losses and the UN must keep its promises to bring clean water, sanitation facilities and hospitals that will save lives and eliminate from Haiti the Vibrio cholerae imported by UN peacekeepers.

We know that this is a highly political matter that requires securing cooperation of the UN's member states, and someone has to take the political leadership to ensure that the UN delivers and the Haitian population's lives are affected for the better. The Haitian diaspora has been calling on the Canadian government to take the lead. As Canada seeks a seat on the UN Security Council, it has both an opportunity and responsibility to move this forward in a principled manner.

As Canada's former ambassador to the UN, Stephen Lewis, reminded a crowd at the recent Canadian Conference on Global Health in Ottawa, it always works out to your credit when you take a principled approach.

On Oct. 15th, the UN closed MINUSTAH, 13 years after it was established. It was replaced by a new UN peacekeeping mission the next day: MINUJUSTH (United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti).

This is quite an ironic name for the new mission, since thousands of Haitian cholera victims are still looking to the UN for justice for the cholera epidemic MINUSTAH left behind.

Junia Barreau was one of the founders of the Collective Solidarity with Haitian Cholera Victims, created in 2013, that has mobilized Haitian diaspora in support of the victims. She has Masters' degrees in economy and entrepreneurship. Ms. Barreau was a speaker at the Canadian Conference on Global Health, organized by the Canadian Society for International Health

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