Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cholera: the latest war against Haitian democracy

A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed more than 250 people killed, and infected more than 3300, in just over one week. Five of those infected were in the capital of Port-au-Prince, raising the specter of a mass epidemic. According to Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the United Nations humanitarian office in Haiti, "It's tragedy upon tragedy for Haiti. We're working on a worst-case scenario. We're planning for a national outbreak."

     Worse than a tragedy, this is a crime. Cholera is terrifying but easily preventable and treatable. Spread through contaminated water it causes such severe diarrhea that it can kill through dehydration in a matter of hours. But it is treated with large volumes of simple fluids—either intravenous or oral rehydration—and can be prevented with clean water and proper sanitation. The science of cholera prevention has existed for 150 years, ever since Dr. John Snow famously plotted the deaths of a London outbreak on a map and found them to centre around a contaminated water pipe. When he persuaded the authorities to shut off the pump the number of cholera cases dropped.
     Rudolf Vircow, who studied epidemics at the time of Snow, concluded that “if disease is an expression of individual life under unfavourable circumstances, then epidemics must be indicative of mass disturbances”. The emergence of a cholera epidemic in Haiti, like the massive death toll following the January earthquake, exposes the mass disturbance imposed on Haiti by centuries of foreign intervention.

     Two-hundred years ago Haitians carried out the only successful slave revolution. But France forced them to pay $21 billion for “lost property”, which it took over a century to pay. Throughout the 20th century the US has interfered in Haitian development, invading in 1915 and staying for 20 years, and supporting the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957-1986. The people of Haiti overthrew the dictatorship in 1986, but was saddled with its debt. The IMF provided loans that forced Haiti to privatize services and slash tariffs on rice, which destroyed the agricultural sector and drove people into sweat-shops in Port-au-Prince. The lack of local agriculture has made Haiti dependent on food aid, and--along with poverty and the privatization of electricity--forced Haitians to cut down the forests for income and charcoal for fuel.

     Twice Haitians have voted for Jean Bertrand Aristide—to restore services and raise wages—and  twice he has been overthrown by coups, in 1991 and 2004. Since then Haitians have protested against the occupying UN force, which has done nothing to improve their lives. The war against Haitian democracy has a political purpose that connects back to the original overthrow of slavery. As Haitian-Canadian Ronald Charles explained on the Real News
“you have a country independent for 200 years now, and from the beginning that was a bad example in the eyes of the big powers of the time. So when some people would say, look at them after more than 200 years look at their condition. So all the people around the world, all the people fighting for liberation, for freedom, the colonial powers will point Haiti to them and say look. For example, In Martinique and Guadelope they had elections to see if people wanted to be independent from France, some people said we don’t want that, and one of the arguments is look at Haiti. And many big powers want to use Haiti as an example of what not to do.”
     Centuries of deliberate interference in Haitian democracy paved the way for two “natural disasters” this year, one geological and one biological. While a 7.0 earthquake in San Francisco in 19189 killed less than 60 people, and 7.0 earthquake in New Zealand this year killed 2, and a 9.0 earthquake in Chile this year killed 1000, a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000.

     This had less to do with events under the ground as on top of them—where centuries of foreign intervention has turned a wealthy and lush nation into an impoverished deforested nation, concentrated in urban slums, living in inadequately built houses on eroded soil, with almost non-existent governmental services, in the midst of a multimillion dollar occupation force that interferes with democracy and development. That the earthquake was so deadly after 6 years of UN occupation exposes its true purpose. According to Peter Hallward, author of Damning the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment:
“The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN missions’ mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this ‘investment’ towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked.”
     The same factors that produced a large earthquake death toll have produced conditions for the emergence of cholera. Partners in Health explain how the  environmental destruction of Haiti has magnified natural disasters, which have destroyed infrastructure—along with poverty—concentrated the population in overcrowded areas with poor sanitation:
 “in Gonaives the capital of the Artibonite has been destroyed in two waves of floods and mudslides, after tropical storm Jeanne in 2004 and after the series of hurricanes in 2008, made possible because of the environmental devastation of the region. The destruction contaminated the water supply and left the infrastructure (including the health infrastructure) of the upper Artibonite in ruins, forcing people to seek residence and medical care in St. Marc. The St. Marc region itself experienced significant flooding in 2008, displacing thousands of people. Lastly, the earthquake of January 12, 2010 resulted in the displacement of 1.7 million Haitians. While reliable statistics are not available currently, the last estimate, as of March of 2010 was that 300,000 addition Haitians had fled Port au Prince to the Artibonite. As there are no “camps” in the region, these displaced persons are “home hosted”—joining poor relatives in already overcrowded conditions, without water security or adequate sanitation. The dispersal of displaced people makes it difficult to provide centralized services.”
     In addition, Haitians are subject to poverty and a lack of food (reducing immunity), lack of transportation (impacting the precious hours between infection and death for those who have to travel to seek healthcare), and lack of healthcare. Coming 9 months after the quake, the cholera epidemic exposes how little “aid” has been provided since the quake. While ordinary Canadians delved deep into their pockets and organized fundraisers across the country, our government cynically used aid to justify a military response to the quake while announcing huge aid sums that clearly weren’t delivered. Harper announced $1 billion in aid for Haiti, and yet clearly Haitians don’t have access to the most basic services.

     This is not first time the great powers have colluded in cholera epidemics, doing John Snow’s experiment in reverse. In their Orwellian-named “Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region—Community Action Programs”, the World Bank pushed African nations to privatize their water, explaining that “work is still needed with political leaders in some national governments to move away from the concept of free water for all.” The South African government followed suit by installing pre-paid water meters that cut people off from free water. Predictably, those who couldn’t pay drank stream water, resulting in an epidemic of cholera that killed 180 and infected 80,000.
     During the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed, the US intentionally destroyed Iraq’s water treatment facilities and blocked the importation of required equipment, knowing it could lead to cholera. As intelligence documents explain: “failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease…unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.”
     While Bush junior was sounding the alarm on Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction”, he was maintaining sanctions that spread cholera in Iraq, while cutting funding to water treatment in Haiti. Before joining Canada to overthrow the democratically elected Aristide, Bush waged an economic war that included cutting funding for water sanitation—including to the Artibonite region currently affected by cholera. As Partners in Health explain:
“In 2000, a set of loans from the Inter American Development Bank to the government of Haiti for water, sanitation and health were blocked for political reasons. The city of St. Marc (population 220,000) and region of the lower Artibonite (population 600,000) were among the areas slated for upgrading of the public water supply. This project was delayed more than a decade and has not yet been completed. We believe secure and free access to clean water is a basic human right that should be delivered through the public sector and that the international community’s failure to assist the government of Haiti in developing a safe water supply has been violation of this basic right.” 
     Humans are made up mainly of water, making access to water our most basic and life-sustaining right. That 100,000 people around the world continue to die of cholera, 150 years after its prevention was discovered, is a clear indication that people’s most basic rights are being ignored. According to Dr. Lyon from Partners in Health:
“70% of the population have no access to clean water or sanitation. People cannot protect themselves. So the country is terrified at this point. It’s a terrifying situation rooted in the lack of infrastructure, lack of sanitation and clean water, which has been very clearly slowed down by manipulation from the outside…cholera will not go away in Haiti until the conditions that make people vulnerable are changed”.
In Haiti, the fight against cholera is part of the fight for democracy--which includes the right to water, the right to their democratically-elected president Aristide instead of an unwanted UN occupation,  and the right to reparations for $21 billion taken as punishment for a slave revolution that should be celebrated. 

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