Saturday, November 13, 2010

Haiti on my mind

Haiti is on my mind. Who speaks for Haiti? Cholera is running rampant through the country. It's no mystery why. Once a poor country suffers a horrible earthquake, something like that is almost inevitable. You see, it's often not the disaster that kills the most people, it's the collapse of essential infrastructure. In a country like Haiti that just barely gets by in the best of times, it doesn't take much to bring it to its knees.

Not too long after the Haitian earthquake, Chile was hit by an even more powerful one. Why isn't Chile being hit by epidemics? Chile's infrastructure is much better. Even though the Chilean earthquake was much bigger, it suffered less overall damage. Essential services were knocked out for days and weeks, not months, like in Haiti.

Cholera isn't a hard disease to beat. All it takes is clean water and good sanitation. Chile restored those systems reasonably quickly. Haiti's tent cities never had a chance. They are over crowded with primitive sanitation and sketchy water supplies. Boiling all drinking water would help, but cooking fuel is always at a premium. Good water filters would also have prevented the spread of the bacteria, but few people have them.

Haiti's problems go beyond simple poverty. It's possible to overcome some material limitations with education and organization. Many people in the Haitian camps don't know even the basics of cholera prevention. If everyone knew what to do, the disease would not have spread so quickly. Then there is the little matter of organization. It's important to remember that this is a country where attempts at organization used to be discouraged by the Tonton Macoutes -brutal paramilitary forces who enforced the Duvalier rule. That sort of machete wielding suppression of initiative tends to leave a mark on society.

The thing to remember about disasters, is that what follows often kills more people than the actual disaster. I'm afraid that'll turn out to the case in Haiti. Good infrastructure that can survive disasters or be quickly repaired prevents the follow on on causalities. Beyond that individuals who have knowledge and some basic supplies can prevent problems. Being able to self organize is also a major plus. Scant resources can be used in an efficient manner and problems caught early before they spread out of control.

One of the reasons I've been following Haiti is that one of my neighbors is Haitian. His wife keeps us informed about the plight of the extended family still in the country. I feel for my neighbor and his family. However, there are countries all over the world facing similar disasters. Pakistan is still half flooded. Good chunks of West African are under water. Parts of Asia also got hit bad. There's a lot of bad stuff happening all around the world. Millions of people are in danger.

Disasters don't just happen in third world countries. Sure, they've got a harder time of it, but even in advanced countries, you can wait for weeks for help to arrive. Just ask the survivors of hurricane Katrina about that.

Be prepared to take care of your own. That's not just supplies, but knowledge and organization. Sometimes it's as simple as knowing how far from the well to put the latrine -and the knowledge that you even need an established latrine.



  1. So many times it's just a real lack of training, I think! If some of the basics were taught at the school level, maybe that would help!

    Sad to see so many suffer from what is basically a very fixable solution!