The coronavirus wave surprises Haiti, which is still starting with vaccinations

© Reuters. People walk in a market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 24, 2021 as they go about their lives. REUTERS / Valerie Baeriswyl

By Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haiti escaped the worst of the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year, reporting few cases and deaths – a rare pause for the poorest country in America so often ravaged by disaster.

COVID-19 treatment centers have been closed for lack of patients, Haitians resumed normal life, and the government has been reluctant to give away free AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:) vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX mechanism due to safety and logistics concerns to accept.

However, now that some countries are already entering a post-pandemic phase thanks to vaccination campaigns, Haiti is struggling with its first serious outbreak.

And it is one of only a few countries in the world that has not yet given a single vaccination against the coronavirus.

In the past month, infections and deaths have increased more than fivefold after the introduction of new variants in what the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) calls a “cautious story about how quickly things can change with this virus”.

Officially, as of June 5, Haiti had recorded 15,895 infections and 333 deaths from COVID-19 among its 11 million people – relatively low numbers compared to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, the data is limited due to lower testing rates, and doctors say the actual numbers are likely much higher. Every day news of deaths from COVID-19 comes from well-known personalities, such as a former senator or the head of the pension fund.

And the upward trend could turn out to be “catastrophic”, according to Laure Adrien, director general of the Haitian health ministry.

Bad hygiene means that disease can spread quickly in Haiti. Its slums are densely packed, and its already overwhelmed and chaotic health system depends on capricious donations.

Last week, two of the top hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the capital, Port-au-Prince, announced their saturation.

“We are overwhelmed with the patients,” said Marc Edson Augustin, medical director of St. Luke Hospital.

Jean ‘Bill’ Pape, a leading Haitian expert on infectious diseases, said the country is now no longer as prepared as it was before.

“We need to reopen new centers to increase the number of dedicated COVID beds,” said Pape.

The new wave also comes amid the rising gang violence https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/gangs-raid-police-stations-weapons-haiti-deadly-violence-surges-2021-06-07 that is the deployment of the little available healthcare.

St. Luke Hospital warned Monday that it may have to shut down its COVID-19 unit entirely as violence made it difficult to refill oxygen at the manufacturing site in the Cite Soleil slum.

Back in February, MSF closed all but the emergency department of the hospital in Cite Soleil, where it treated COVID-19 patients last year.

Wealthier Haitians pay to be transferred to Florida or the Dominican Republic.

NO PRIORITY

Haitian doctors largely attributed their country’s apparent resilience to the coronavirus last year to its relatively young population. About half of Haitians are under 25 years old.

Many locals dismissed the virus as no big deal or even doubted its existence. In the midst of a growing humanitarian crisis https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/acute-malnutrition-surging-among-haitian-children-unicef-warns-2021-05-31 in the wake of political unrest and extreme weather in the Connection with climate change.

When reports surfaced last month of the arrival of the new variants, first identified in the UK and Brazil, and an increase in cases, reactions were initially subdued.

The authorities re-ordered precautionary measures such as masks in public places, introduced an overnight curfew and suspended graduation ceremonies at the end of the year. President Jovenel Moise urged Haitians to drink medicinal tea to fight off the virus, an unproven cure.

Still, many Haitians went on with their normal lives and the authorities were unwilling or unable to take action. A district mayor of Port-au-Prince hosted a music concert last week that was attended by thousands without masks.

However, the pressure builds up. PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said last week there was “no time to lose” as additional health capacity and preventive measures were “critical” to contain the transmission.

Companies are demanding Haitians only wear masks and new COVID-19 treatment centers are opening.

“We need to open new structures to take in more patients with breathing difficulties to avoid a disaster,” said Ronald Laroche, a doctor who runs a network of low-cost health centers and hospitals, who opened a COVID-19 center this week.

On Monday, the electoral council postponed a referendum on a new constitution planned for the end of June.

And next week, Haiti was due to receive its first batch – 130,000 doses – of COVID-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccination program.

Doctors say the challenge now is to convince Haitians that they actually have the vaccine.

Ronald Jean, 38, restaurant manager in Port-au-Prince, said he was scared of the virus for the first time.

But “first the authorities should put the vaccine on TV, we’ll see how they do,” he said. “And then I’ll decide whether to take it or not.”

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