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Haiti hospitals overwhelmed as earthquake disaster worsens existing needs

‘I had hoped to build a peaceful life far away from the violence of Port-au-Prince and the bad memories of the first earthquake.’

Two women sit in the shade at a makeshift encampment set up on a soccer field after Saturday's 7.2-magnitude quake, in Les Cayes, Haiti on 16 August 2021.
Two women sit in the shade at a makeshift encampment set up on a soccer field after Saturday's 7.2-magnitude quake, in Les Cayes, Haiti on 16 August 2021. (Ralph Tedy/REUTERS)

Doctors and medical workers in Haiti are scrambling to treat thousands of patients injured by Saturday’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake – which killed more than 1,400 people – amid reports of shortages of painkillers and other medication. 

“We are saturated, and people keep coming in because the roads were blocked,” Dr. Jean Rigaud told The New Humanitarian in Les Cayes, the nearest major town to the epicentre of the earthquake.

With time running out to find survivors, rescuers on Tuesday morning retrieved the dead body of a three-year-old girl from near the former UN office in the town, located about 200 kilometres southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Rigaud said many injuries at Les Cayes’ Immaculée Conception Hospital had become infected. One such patient was 52-year-old Fafane Duralien, whose arm was crushed. On Monday, he pleaded for pain medicine, while other patients spilled onto the hospital veranda or under makeshift tarps awaiting treatment. 

Prime Minister Ariel Henry has vowed to speed up aid delivery, but because of blocked roads, some of the injured – like 70-year-old Madline Cerat – only reached hospital on Monday. Cerat’s leg was broken when the wall of her house collapsed.

The earthquake is the latest setback for Haiti, which has been battling a rise in COVID-19 cases, growing hunger, rampant gang violence that has displaced nearly 20,000 people, and political uncertainty following the 7 July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Vaccination against the coronavirus, the lowest in the region, was only recently started, with less than two percent so far having received a first dose. As people congregate without masks in the aftermath of the disaster, there are now fears of a new spike.

Several hospitals and clinics in the region were damaged by the earthquake, including a building in Les Cayes housing medical students, hospital interns, and doctors. Water shortages are also being reported. 

More than 6,900 people were injured by the earthquake, which destroyed more than 37,000 homes in the Caribbean country’s southern peninsula and badly damaged other infrastructure. The death toll is expected to rise as responders continue their search for survivors, often with their bare hands.

Aid efforts, meanwhile, were being hampered overnight Monday into Tuesday by pelting rains caused by Tropical Depression Grace, while several roads or bridges were still blocked after being damaged by the earthquake.

“If you don’t have a four-by-four, even a day of rain can block the road [in normal times],” said Sibylle Bühlmann, a coordinator with Handicap International, which has been supporting medical facilities and helping to coordinate aid transport. 

Reopening old wounds

The temblor also dealt an unsettling psychological blow to a nation still reeling from the devastating 7.0-magnitude 2010 earthquake that killed between 100,000 and 300,000 people, and displaced hundreds of thousands more around the capital.

Some of those left homeless by Saturday’s earthquake – which came from the same set of fault lines that triggered the 2010 disaster – said they had moved to the south in the hope of moving on from the previous trauma. 

“I had hoped to build a peaceful life far away from the violence of Port-au-Prince and the bad memories of the first earthquake,” said Eveline Joseph, a 32-year-old mother of four who moved to Les Cayes earlier this year. “I lost eight people in the 2010 earthquake. Now, two friends are missing from Saturday’s tremor, and my house is destroyed.”

The earthquake struck on Saturday just as morning church services were beginning. The International Federation of the Red Cross reported that several churches – an important source of support and humanitarian assistance in Haiti – had collapsed in Les Cayes and Jérémie, another town on the southern peninsula.

haiti-quake-rubble.jpg

Rescuers search the rubble in Les Cayes for survivors in the aftermath of Saturday's earthquake.
Evens Mary/The New Humanitarian
Rescuers search the rubble in Les Cayes for survivors in the aftermath of Saturday's earthquake.

Gangs controlling road access to the southeastern part of the country said they wouldn’t impede aid shipments, however some feared the security situation could quickly change. 

“We have no guarantees,” Peter Finlay, IFRC’s regional security officer, told The New Humanitarian, noting the need to shelter those who had been displaced. 

Many residents who lost their homes and feared further tremors were seen sleeping outdoors – for months after the 2010 earthquake, many continued sleeping on rooftops or in the open saying they were too traumatised to sleep indoors. 

“All I could think of was my little girl,” 35-year-old Jean-Jean Cecile told The New Humanitarian, describing the moment when half of his roof collapsed. He later learned that his wife and two-year-old daughter had reached safety before the building collapsed. 

Crisis-worn

Haiti is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to natural disasters, and suffers from chronic food insecurity, with almost half the population – 4.4 million people – needing immediate food assistance.

Although the Caribbean country became the world’s first Black republic in 1804, it was forced to pay billions to France in order to secure its freedom. That crippling debt – combined with political and environmental crises, a long US military occupation, and a debilitating US trade embargo – has prevented Haiti from making economic headway or investing in its disaster response and preparedness.

The country’s elite – often lighter-skinned business owners, academics, and intellectuals – has also long been accused of ignoring the needs of the country’s Black majority. 

Little investment has been made in areas outside of the capital, such as Les Cayes and Jérémie, and many communities in the south are also struggling to recover from Hurricane Matthew, which claimed 546 Haitian lives in 2016. 

“It feels like the country never gets a break from anything,” said Bühlmann, who had been in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake response.

Migration from Haiti in recent years has also left the country with a shortage of healthcare workers, and Cuban doctors were helping to treat patients after Saturday’s disaster.

Ciro Ugarte, emergencies chief at the Pan American Health Organization, urged relief organisations to coordinate with the government and established partners. PAHO was working with Haiti’s Ministry of Health and civil protection agency on identifying and supporting trauma care needs, and rapid response teams of nurses and epidemiologists.

It was important, Ugarte said, that this response didn’t repeat the mistakes of 2010, when nearly 2,000 aid groups rushed to Haiti in response to the earthquake, creating “another problem on top of the humanitarian situation”.

“Considering logistic issues and security issues, bringing more people to do their own assessments in their own vehicles for their own purposes and interests would complicate the situation,” he said.

Paisley Dodds contributed to this report from London. Paula Dupraz-Dobias also contributed to this story from Geneva. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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