On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published a scathing column comparing the Obama administration's response to the earthquake in Haiti to former President George W. Bush's much-derided handling of Hurricane Katrina.
The authors are three New York-based physicians who traveled as a medical team to the island in the aftermath of the destruction. They were remarkably harsh in their findings, gathered after 60-plus hours of work and more than 100 operations. "The U.S. response to the earthquake should be considered an embarrassment," they concluded.
But the conclusions offered by Soumitra Eachempati, Dean Lorish and David Helfet are missing some essential context.
This trio's expectation of the capacity to provide medical relief in Haiti appears to be overly optimistic. Even before the calamitous earthquake struck the country, the country's hospitals faced grave shortages in medical supplies, personnel and even rudimentary hospital technology. I know -- I took three separate trips there to volunteer with my parents (both physicians) at Hospital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) in Deschapelles, a midland village three hours from the capital.
The crux of their complaints is that ineffective coordination among U.S. agencies led to medical teams and supplies not going where they were needed.
"Our operation received virtually no support from any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department," they write. "As we ran out of various supplies we had no means to acquire more. There was no way to transfer patients we were poorly equipped to manage (such as a critically ill newborn with respiratory distress) to a facility where they would get better care. We were heartbroken having to tell patients suffering incredible pain [that] we could not perform their surgery for at least a day."
It's hard to contest that more could have been done to help the afflicted. It's the nature of any such natural disaster. But the sentiments offered by these three doctors are not universally shared across the country. Jennifer Grant, who serves on the board of HAS, told the Huffington Post that despite having 300 patients in a 100-bed facility, medical staff was delivering care in a timely manner. The problem, she noted, was not that U.S. government officials and aid workers were sitting on their hands, but rather that infrastructure damage was disrupting operations.
"We believe that we have some supplies coming down,' she said, in a phone interview last week. "Medicine supplies are coming down by private planes. But the first time that one plane can get in is in a few days because the backup is so long."
"This is absolutely the toughest challenge we've dealt with," Grant added. "The hurricanes were devastating but particularly devastating in certain areas. They went away but for certain areas they weren't. But to have your capital city totally destroyed is devastating. The government buildings, including the palace, [were] destroyed. President [Rene] Preval can't stay in the palace, his own personal home was destroyed. Ministry buildings have collapsed... There is no electricity. And I think the thing that is really going to be important is fuel for cars. People can't replenish [at] the gas station because you can't pump the fuel into the trucks because there is no electricity..."
Phillip Matthews, who is working on the ground at Hospital Sacre Coeur, roughly 75 miles north of Port Au Prince, offered a fairly similar assessment of the earthquake's fallout -- though he also argued that more and better care could have been offered had U.S. officials been able to get patients to hospitals.
"We are ready and willing to accommodate many more patients, but the issue is we need rescue workers to send more patients to us," Matthews said, in an email to the Huffington Post last week. "We are aware that hospitals in the south are overrun and that people are dying in the street from crush injuries that are leading to sepsis. Many of the patients who have arrived are in advanced stages of gangrene, and one patient who came in Saturday is very lucky because he would have died soon thereafter had he not received care. Right now, the country needs all the help it can get, yet a main hospital here is still largely underutilized in the aftermath of this tragedy..."
The authors of the op-ed have a slightly more critical perspective on the crisis than Matthews and Grant. They relay that, "warehouse-size quantities of unused medicines, food and other supplies" remained at the airport, "surrounded by hundreds of U.S. and international soldiers standing around aimlessly." If true, this obviously represents a major bungle in relief coordination.
But to insist, as they do, that America fared "no better in this latest disaster" than it did with Katrina seems like an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. For starters, even the authors note that the Haiti catastrophe is on a far larger scale, with more than 150,000 deaths already compared to the 2,000 deaths resulting from Katrina. Moreover, the problem currently seems to be more about terrible infrastructure blockage (an issue that plagued Haiti well before the earthquake) than poorly-coordinated American personnel.