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Hurricane Sandy is another blow to Haiti

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Hurricane Sandy struck another heavy blow to Haiti on October 23, 24, 2012. At least 54 people died and dozens more are missing. Several tens of thousands of people were flooded out of their homes or earthquake survivor camps.

There are some 370,000 people stuck in appalling conditions in the camps while hundreds of thousands more have gone back to damaged homes or whatever other inadequate shelter they can find.

Canada’s media reports, and doesn’t report, on Sandy in Haiti

The Montreal daily La Presse assigned Gabrielle Duchaine to report from Haiti in the aftermath of the hurricane. Her reporting was the most substantive to appear in Canada. She wrote two informative articles on the difficult conditions she observed in the south of Haiti where Hurricane Sandy struck hardest, including dealing a severe blow to food production.

According to preliminary estimations by Haitian government officials, 70 percent of the crop that was ready to be harvested in the south of the country was destroyed, including bananas, beans, rice, avocado and corn. Cattle were also lost. The losses amount to more than $100 million.

Compounding the food problem, areas in the north of Haiti experienced drought conditions earlier this year, while the drought in the U.S. Midwest this past summer has sent prices of corn and other staples soaring. United Nations officials say that one million people in Haiti--one tenth of the population--are now threatened by food insecurity.

Here is the translated introduction to one of the articles by Duchaine:

When Hurricane Sandy descended on the U.S. east coast, all eyes were turned to New York and the huge reserves of emergency assistance that were deployed. Yet, some 2,500 km from there in Haiti, the population was left to its own means to deal with the full force of the elements. The result: an unceasingly heavy outcome with more than 100 deaths, tens of thousands of affected people, new outbreaks of cholera, and, especially, the destruction of some 70 percent of the country's food harvests in the south of the country. Now that the waters have receded, the grumbling is growing louder in communities where people are still waiting for assistance...

Protests were already on the rise in Haiti over rising food prices and an ineffective national government seen to have little sympathy or plan to get the country out of its downward, post-earthquake economic and social spiral. Protst will only deepen in the months ahead.

The Globe and Mail published several short articles from Haiti on Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 reporting on the damage to food production caused by the hurricane. Radio Canada (French CBC) broadcast a brief radio news report from an AFP journalist in Haiti.

The website of Montreal's English language daily The Gazette (one cog in Canada's largest newspaper chain, Postmedia) contains several short, perfunctory news reports on Sandy's aftermath in Haiti. Meanwhile, the site features dozens of substantive articles on Sandy's impact on the United States.

Cholera threat and UN denial

A Nov. 1 feature article in the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily, reported tangentially on the hurricane. The article was a personal profile of Nigel Fisher, the Canadian west coast resident who is the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Haiti.

The article reported Fisher’s typical upbeat message on Haiti, to the effect, 'Yes, things are bad, but we are doing the best we can.' Titled Nigel Fisher, caretaker of the world’s children, the article reports:

Fisher was at his Port-au-Prince office on Wednesday [Oct 31] at 6:30 a.m., juggling yet another set of crisis logistics in the hard-luck country, where he has overseen earthquake relief and recovery since 2010.

A call to the Haitian prime minister was on his agenda because, in addition to handling the newest human casualties from Sandy, a food shortage now looms. A drought early in the year stunted crops before they had a chance to mature. Then, a damaging summer storm reduced harvest estimates by about 40 per cent - a worrisome situation even before the massive hurricane struck last week.

"Sandy just about finished it off," Fisher says. "So on top of everything else that this poor country faces, now we're facing a real problem of food security throughout the winter."

The article concludes:

"I feel so much of the news that comes out about Haiti is all about disaster and hopeless and yet, I've been here almost three years now and I've seen a lot of change."

He believes it's vital to tell donors in wealthy countries such as Canada about progress in tough places, not just stories about sadness and hardship. He cites the fact that, while the number of Haitians remaining in camps, 350,000, seems "a heck of a lot," about 2 million were displaced by the earthquake. "That means 80 per cent have gone home." *

After a year, the worst of cholera's infectious surge is over, with Haiti and its island neighbour, the Dominican Republic, working together on disease-eradication plans. Fisher reports that more children are in school than before the earthquake. Vaccination rates for kids are up too. "There are always points of light."

The UN’s moral standing among the Haitian people is at an all-time low, not only because its soldiers recklessly introduced the cholera bacteria into the country but also because the agency has since denied responsibility and, to this day, refuses to undertake rapid and meaningful redress, notably in building clean water delivery systems.

In May 2011, a scientific panel convened by Ban Ki-moon five months earlier published its findings, saying that the cholera bacteria likely originated at a UN military base at Mirebalais, Haiti that was staffed by recently-arrived soldiers from Nepal. The strain of cholera was identified as the one prevalent in cholera-endemic Nepal. But the report then went on to say that the spread of the bacteria (the epidemic) was caused by a "confluence of circumstances."

One of the UN’s point men on the cholera file is Fisher himself. He has insisted that the agency’s culpability is unproven. He says finding the source of the epidemic is secondary; what's important is to treat the victims. But as the evidence has mounted and become incontrovertible, the UN response has shifted.

One of the world’s leading cholera experts, Daniele Lantagne of Harvard University, was a member of the 2011 panel and she recently said after studying new scientific data that the "most likely" source of the outbreak was the UN base at Mirebalais. Hers was only the latest in a string of epidemiological studies to pinpoint the source of the epidemic as being UN soldiers.

Fisher voiced the new response of the UN to cholera accusations recently to the BBC’s Mark Doyle:

"I know there's new information there," Mr. Fisher said. "But the investigation is still with the [UN's New York] legal office, so I'm not able to say anything at this time until that's gone through the due process."

But one year after legal action was undertaken on behalf of the past and future victims of cholera, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office has yet to issue a statement as to how it intends to deal with the legal action. In addition to denial mode, then, the UN is by all appearance in 'stall' mode as well.

A resurgence of cholera infections is feared after Hurricane Sandy. La Presse’s Duchaine reported from Les Cayes in the south of Haiti that the local hospital received dozens of infected patients following the storm that brought four days of intense rain. Doctor Joseph Yves Domercant, director of the hospital, told Duchaine that he expects many more victims.

Jonathan Watts reports in The Guardian recently that Haiti has more cholera cases than the rest of the world combined. According to the World Health Organization, Haiti was recording increasing cholera cases even before the latest hurricane. Six hundred thousand people have been infected and more than 7,500 have died since the start of the epidemic in October 2010.

Showcasing sweatshop labour

One week before Hurricane Sandy struck, Bill and Hillary Clinton were in Caracol, northern Haiti to showcase the recently-opened clothing factory complex of south Korea’s SAE-A.

The Caracol Industrial Park is touted to eventually employ tens of thousands of workers. It is a centerpiece of the "Open For Business" theme of the government of President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. The U.S. and Canada say that "Open For Business," which is a polished-up version of the failed, sweatshop labour model of the declining years of the Duvalier tyranny in Haiti, is key to the country's economic future.

The Caracol park was built on prime agricultural land on the opposite side of the country from the earthquake zone. The land was provided by the Haitian government. The installations–factory buildings, electricity supply, housing for workers–were paid through grants from the U.S. government and the Inter-American Development Bank.

SAE-A has shifted production to Haiti from a factory it closed in Guatemala where workers were seeking to form a union in the face of stiff opposition by the company.

A report by the Better Work international agency that was released in October shows that 21 of the 22 sweatshop factories surveyed in Haiti (not including Caracol because it is just getting off the ground) were failing to pay the country’s factory minimum wage of US$5 per day.

What you can do

One of the most effective ways to express solidarity with the Haitian people is to support the Under Tents housing rights campaign. If you haven’t already done so, please sign its international petition demanding action on housing from the Haitian government and its international backers, including Canada. You can also read about other ways to support the campaign.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and its partner office in Haiti is spearheading the legal action on behalf of cholera victims. Find out more about that case and how you can support it, here.

Partners In Health Canada has recently launched an awareness and action campaign for global health, including in Haiti, called ‘Prove what is possible.’ Check out that campaign here.

For complete information on Haiti: www.canadahaitiaction.ca.

* Nearly half of the structures in Port au Prince were rendered unsafe to inhabit by the 2010 earthquake. Many of the people who left earthquake survivor camps moved back into these damaged homes. UN agencies do not track what happens to those who have left camps.

Postscript: On November 13, 2012, the Boston Globe print daily published an editorial, 'UN must make amends for cholera that organization brought to Haiti.' The editorial criticizes the UN for "foot dragging" on the legal action against it that seeks measures to halt the spread of cholera.

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