Old prejudices surface in media coverage of COVID and Haiti

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View of rooftops in Haiti. Image: Banco Mundial América Latina y el Caribe/Flickr

Many who would deny harbouring prejudice or racism continue to apply centuries-old stereotypes to Haitians with seeming impunity or even self-awareness.

"Third flight from Haiti lands with many COVID-infected passengers" and "COVID-infected flights from Haiti under scrutiny," noted two Toronto Sun headlines last month. Another Sun story reported, "questions are still swirling about two flights from Haiti that landed in Montreal last week, apparently with so many COVID-19 infected passengers that Health Canada said all rows were potentially impacted." A few days earlier Le Journal de Montréal bellowed "Deux vols en provenance d'Haïti bourrés de cas de COVID" (Two flights from Haiti full of COVID cases), while CTV declared, "Many COVID-infected passengers aboard three Haiti-to-Montreal flights, federal data shows."

But the COVID-19 rate is far higher in Montréal than Port-au-Prince so from a macro public health standpoint it makes little sense to be particularly worried about Haitians infecting Canadians. In fact, Haitians should be concerned about Canadians travelling there. Ostensibly, the Sun and other media are focused on Haiti because Ottawa delayed by 15 days the implemention of a requirement for inbound travellers from Haiti to show a negative COVID-19 test.

While it's difficult to parse out legitimate public health concerns from deeply entrenched anti-Haitianism, historically it is clear that Haitians have repeatedly been stigmatized as diseased. Most infamously, Haitians were labelled as the originators of the HIV virus in the U.S. in the early 1980s. As a result, the country's significant tourism industry basically collapsed overnight. Some Haitian exports were even blocked from entering the U.S.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labelled Haitians a risk group, part of what was designated "the four Hs," or four high-risk groups: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians. At the time the Canadian Red Cross publicly identified Haitians as a "high-risk" group for AIDS, the only nationality singled out. In 1983 they called on homosexual and bisexual people with multiple partners, intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and recent immigrants from Haiti to voluntarily stop giving blood. But it's unclear if the incidence of AIDS in Haiti was greater than in the U.S. By 1987 it was lower in Haiti than in the U.S. and other Caribbean nations.

Decades later the stigmatization remains. In 2017 U.S. president Donald Trump reportedly said Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS" and in 2016 former MP André Arthur claimed, "Haiti is the country where AIDS started." The Quebec City radio host added that the "hopeless," "sexually deviant" nation should be taken over by France as in the "heyday of colonial Haiti" ("belle époque de l'Haïti colonial").

In another example of stigmatizing Haitians over disease, CDC incident manager for the Haiti cholera response Jordan Tappero blamed Haitian cultural norms for the 2010 cholera outbreak in that country. He told Associated Press journalist Jonathan Katz that Haitians don't experience the "shame associated with open defecation." As was then suspected and later confirmed, cholera was introduced to Haiti by a UN base that followed poor sanitation practices, dumping feces from recently arrived Nepalese troops into a stream people drank from. More than 10,000 Haitians died and hundreds of thousands were made ill as a result of the waterborne disease.

Impoverishment and weakness are part of what makes it possible to blame and stigmatize Haitians. But there is also a broader, deeply entrenched, anti-Haitian discourse.

The Vodou religion, for instance, has been demonized for two centuries. In 1986 a CBC Journal reporter casually noted, "large numbers of Haitians are driven by wild stories and voodoo rituals and myths" while "Hope for Haiti?" a July 13, 1994 Montreal Gazette article calling for "trusteeship" of Haiti claimed: "The true religion of the people is voodoo, with its fearful profusion of capricious spirits, the 'loa,' who always threaten to punish human beings who fail to placate them by sacrifices. Haiti is a society with little solidarity."

Important for securing Haitian independence, Vodou offered spiritual and ideological strength to those who rose up against their slave masters. A Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman in August 1791 helped launch the slave revolt that became the Haitian Revolution.

Some two centuries later evangelical Christians openly denigrated the Bois Caïman ceremony as a "deal made with Satan." After the deadly 2010 earthquake, influential U.S. pastor Pat Robertson claimed it was a punishment for making a "deal made with Satan" at Bois Caïman. He told his TV viewers that Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever … And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.'" Robertson added, "you know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."

The 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution dealt a crushing blow to slavery, colonialism and white supremacy globally. "Arguably," notes Peter Hallward in Damning the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment, "there is no single event in the whole of modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global order of things."

In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution thousands of photos, articles and books denigrated Haiti, depicting the slaves as barbaric despite the fact that 350,000 Africans were killed, versus 75,000 Europeans, over 13 years. The reason was the fear of successful revolt instilled in the "white" world.

There is a connection between the reaction to the Haitian Revolution and COVID-19 headlines in Canadian media today. Anti-Haitian sentiment runs deep.

Yves Engler is a Montreal-based writer and political activist.

Image credit: Banco Mundial América Latina y el Caribe/Flickr

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