A report by Jacqueline Charles for The Miami Herald.
Haiti’s prime minister declared an early victory Wednesday over COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and announced that the country will be reopening textile factories next week.
The government will also decide whether to extend or end a state of emergency first imposed on March 20 after confirming its first two positive infections, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe said. Jouthe made the announcement during a live press briefing in which he repeatedly noted that Haiti has only recorded three deaths and 40 confirmed cases when the government at first “thought we were going to be at 5,000.”
“This behavior we’ve had is why, thanks to God, I can’t say I have 10 corpses; I can’t say I have 100 corpses like all those developed countries and their big infrastructures,” Jouthe said as he made reference to Haitians’ ongoing defiance of the government’s order against public gatherings. “I think we reacted very well even if the population had lots of little lapses, dancing … having block parties.”
Instead of going the way of most countries in the region, which are enforcing lockdowns and strict social distancing measures in anticipation of more infections and deaths, Jouthe simply called for the use of masks.
The emphasis on masks over stricter social distancing measures indicates Haiti is changing course even as the Pan American Health Organization warns that the region has not yet seen its expected surge of coronavirus infections.
Jouthe’s messaging also seems counter to what the regional health experts are telling countries in the region.
In a Tuesday briefing, PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne warned that social distancing “remains our best bet to reduce transmission and slow the spread of the virus.” She also warned countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that now is not the time to let up on some of the more stringent measures.
“COVID-19 has yet to hit with full force in our region, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and we expect it to intensify in the next few weeks,” Etienne said. “Indeed, the rise in hospitalizations and deaths we see in some countries highlights how quickly the situation could change.”
As of Monday, there were 610,744 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 23,753 deaths in the Americas.
“Following a period of social distancing, any attempt to transition to more flexible measures should be taken with extreme caution,” Etienne said. “Such decisions should always be informed by disease transmission patterns, like COVID-19 testing and contact tracing capacity, the availability of hospital beds and other objective criteria.”
While Haiti has one of the lowest numbers of confirmed cases of infections in the hemisphere, it has also tested relatively few people — 439, according to an April 12 Ministry of Health report. Ministry officials, who confirmed a 41st infection late Wednesday, have publicly acknowledged challenges in doing contact tracing and testing individuals.
Unlike Haiti, the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has confirmed 3,286 COVID-19 cases and 183 deaths, has been much more aggressive in its testing and using rapid test kits to find cases. Jouthe rejected the idea of using such tests, which some say would give a better idea of the prevalence of the virus in the country.
In justifying the decision to reopen the country’s factories, Jouthe compared himself to the captain of a soccer team who has to look and see “when a player is not moving forward to tell him to move.” He has to authorize the factories back to work, he said, “even at 30 percent of their personnel capacity.”
“Beginning on Monday, April 20, the government will grant authorization to the textile industries for them to resume work,” said Jouthe. “The textile industry matters a great deal for us. We have about 58,000 jobs in that sector. The people who provide those jobs won’t wait for them, so we have to be reasonable.”
Georges Sassine, the head of the Association of Haitian Industries, welcomed the decision. He said that from day one of the pandemic, factories, which mostly make T-shirts for U.S. companies, have had sanitary measures in place.
“Inside the factory they are pretty safe,” Sassine said. “They have masks, they have to wipe their feet on solutions and they are kept a meter and a half from each other.”
But Sassine conceded that neither the association nor factory owners have control over what happens among the general population. Up to now, Haiti has not adopted any measures to limit crowds on public buses, which continue to be crowded beyond capacity.
With no mention of public transport, Jouthe focused most of his briefing on the use of masks. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended the use of masks by even healthy people to help against the spread of the coronavirus, their effectiveness in curbing the spread continues to be a matter of public debate among public health specialists.
“Wash your hands, wash your hands, wear masks, wear masks,” Jouthe said, telling Haitians that he didn’t care what it was made out of, while acknowledging the government had failed in its mission to secure 10 million masks for the population.
A number of Latin American and Caribbean nations in the past week have taken a different approach. While continuing to emphasize hand washing and asking citizens to cover their faces in public, they have also prolonged the closure of businesses while extending their states of emergencies. Some have even put in place even more stringent social distancing measures, like shutting down supermarkets, 24-hour lockdowns, closing beaches and forbidding pleasure crafts on their waterways.
“Following these measures is not easy and it will be tough on our economy and way of life,” Etienne said about social distancing during PAHO’s weekly press briefing Tuesday. “But the pandemic has taught us that these measures work.”
Even local Haiti mayors seem to be cracking down. In the last week, the mayors of two of the largest cities — Petionville and Carrefour — have announced restrictions on the days and times that public markets in their cities can operate. They have also put in hand-washing stations and announced the distributions of masks.
Jouthe’s press conference had some contradictory messages. While telling Haitians he will let them return to work, he also called for them to stay home. As he advocated the wearing of masks, he himself went without one, only covering his face toward the end.
On Monday, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse announced that the government had three million masks that would be distributed as of Tuesday. But on Wednesday Jouthe said he only had between 300,000 to 400,000 masks available, telling Haitians that “no matter what, the government will manage putting masks all around the country.”
He also acknowledged other challenges. Haiti has invested very little in its healthcare and today remains the most fragile of the countries in the region as gangs continue to unleash violence even in the face of the pandemic.
Jouthe announced he’s put together a committee to address security as it relates to COVID-19, and violence by gangs who over the weekend killed at least six Haitians and injured 30 others in a shooting spree near downtown. Jouthe said some of the gang leaders called him Tuesday.
“All of the bandits in the country have called me since I became prime minister. I speak to all of them,” said Jouthe, adding that as the head of a family and prime minister he cannot “lose one person in the country. … I will continue to speak to them every day until i remove their weapons, until they pick up a pail to work.”
The coronavirus, Jouthe said, is an opportunity for Haitians to rally around a single cause.
“Today we have to admit that we do not have money. We have to admit that we do not have hospitals. We have to admit we don’t have schools. we have to admit that all of the indicators in the country are in the red because we came together to destroy our country,” Jouthe said, referring to the violent protests and political crisis that have plagued Moïse’s time in office.
“But today I want you to use the pandemic to come together to rebuild the country since it was us who destroyed it. Me, you, the president, senators, deputes, doctors, engineers, agronomists … we all came together to destroy it.”