Earlier this year, the Haitian people and their supporters commemorated the fifth anniversary of the horrific earthquake that struck the country in 2010. This month marks the fifth anniversary of the horrific cholera outbreak that followed.
More of us know about the earthquake. But the cholera was worse.
Not in terms of sheer lives lost—although the epidemic claimed 9,000 lives and sickened one out of every 15 people in the country. The cholera was worse because it’s a human-rights tragedy.
While the earthquake originated as a natural disaster, albeit one made worse by generations of international exploitation, the cholera epidemic was a fully human-made phenomenon. It demonstrates that the world’s most powerful nation—the United States—and its most respected international organization—the United Nations—have no intention of treating the Haitian people as fully human beings, deserving of even the most basic of rights.
Cholera is a terrible way to die. The bacterium vibrio cholerae gets into water supplies via infected feces. Its victims suffer from diarrhea that experts and victims alike have described as “explosive.” Without quick treatment, a cholera patient can die within hours.
Thanks to modern water treatment systems, cholera is all but unknown in most of the world now. In the United States, physicians and public-health experts describe it as a 19th-century disease.
But most Haitians live without access to any kind of treated water, using river water for drinking and bathing. There are no municipal sewage systems, so waterborne diseases can be rapidly transmitted. When one international organization compiled a water-poverty index of 147 countries, Haiti ranked dead last.
In other words, Haiti’s infrastructure remains very much mired in the 19th century—and terribly susceptible to 19th-century diseases.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 1998, the Haitian government successfully obtained $54 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank—money earmarked to make much-needed improvements to the country’s water system. But the George W. Bush administration, angered by the left-leaning Haitian government then led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, blocked the loans. “It is reasonable to draw a straight line from these loans being cut off to the epidemic that emerged,” says Dr. Evan Lyon of the Haiti-based Partners in Health.
So when the cholera bacterium was introduced to the Haitian water supply five years ago this month, there was nothing to stop it from rampaging through the country with ruthless speed and impact.
A “Sanitation Clusterfuck”
But what, or who, brought cholera to Haiti in the first place? Haiti’s never had a shortage of woes, but the battered country hadn’t reported a single case of cholera in a century.