In The New Yorker’s Dispatches from a Pandemic, Edwidge Danticat provides her insights in “Ripple Effects.” She writes, “They say, ‘Whenever Haiti sneezes, Miami catches a cold.’ But, in the time of COVID-19, the reverse is also true.” These words struck me deeply—“It was a reversal of sorts, in which our fragility now seemed greater than theirs”—as I have received so many concerned queries about my wellbeing working in “New York” (I have to remind them that I am not in NYC) or my son in Italy…
I suspected that things might be getting serious when, at a memorial for an elderly friend, who’d died long before covid-19 was a pandemic, many of us tried to figure out how to greet one another. The scenario might have amused our friend, who’d died of natural causes, in the arms of his wife, at the age of ninety-three. His memorial was one of the last gatherings on the main campus of Florida International University, which soon afterward moved to online learning. The remarks on our friend’s life and work were preceded by a public-service announcement reminding the sixty or so of us to wash our hands frequently, cough into our elbows, and avoid close physical contact.
“It will be hard not to touch,” we said to one another. “We’re Haitians.” In saying this, we were perhaps echoing what so many other groups around the world had said on similar occasions: “We’re_______.” We did what we could with elbow bumps, but there were occasional lapses into tearful hugs and kisses, until someone jokingly suggested a butt bump, which a few of us tried, with mutual consent. We were not yet fully aware that there were people around the world dying painful and lonely deaths, some attached to ventilators, and far from the arms of their loved ones.
Saying that we’re Haitians might also have been an acknowledgment of our past collisions with microbes. In the early nineteen-eighties, the Centers for Disease Control named four groups at “high risk” for acquired-immunodeficiency syndrome: intravenous-drug users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Haitians were the only ones solely identified by nationality, in part because of a number of Haitian patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital, in Miami. In October, 2010, nine months after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas, Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the north of Haiti released raw sewage from their base into one of Haiti’s most used rivers, causing a cholera epidemic that killed ten thousand people and infected close to a million. As of this writing, Haiti has had only fifteen confirmed cases of covid-19, but, fearing that the disease could ravage the country and its fragile health infrastructure, Haiti’s President, Jovenel Moïse, declared a state of emergency, imposed curfews, and closed schools and airports.
During the weeks before Haiti had any covid-19 cases, friends and family members there would text and WhatsApp-message me and others to tell us to watch out for the disease. It was a reversal of sorts, in which our fragility now seemed greater than theirs. They’d had more experience with day-to-day disruptions, including months-long lockdowns due to political protests. This, too, will pass, one poetic cousin, a fellow sunset lover, kept writing, increasingly concerned about me as the death numbers rose in Florida. “I hope you and your husband and your children will live a long life. I hope when you finally die at a very old age, they’ll say you had eaten a lot of salt.”
“Or had seen a lot of sunsets,” I replied.
When I first moved to Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, in 2002, I would often hear my neighbors say, “Whenever Haiti sneezes, Miami catches a cold.” That is, whatever was happening in Haiti could have ripple effects in Miami homes, workplaces, schools, barbershops, and churches. The reverse is also true. Already, hundreds of Miami Haitians, like many other Caribbean and Latin-American immigrants who work in the tourism, hospitality, and service industries here, have lost their jobs owing to covid-19. Not only will they have trouble providing for themselves; they will also be unable to send money back home to those who count on them to survive. And Miami is home to a large number of Haitian-American medical personnel, who could become ill as the pandemic spreads.