The UN Caused Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic, Now it Must End It

November 13, 2012

Mark Weisbrot
The Guardian Unlimited, November 12, 2012

See article on original website

Before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the United States, it killed 54 people in Haiti and left tens of thousands more homeless. Haiti is especially vulnerable because of its poor infrastructure and environmental destruction, so people die there – as they did during the earthquake in January 2010 – in greater numbers than they would in other countries subject to the same natural disasters.

But there is one disaster that was brought to Haiti directly by people, and not by nature. It was not caused by shifting tectonic plates or extreme weather (or climate change).  That disaster is the cholera epidemic that struck Haiti two years ago.

Most people I talk to don’t even know that United Nations troops brought this deadly disease to Haiti in October of 2010.  There hadn’t been any cholera in Haiti for at least 100 years, if ever, until some U.N. troops from South Asia dumped human waste into a tributary of the country’s main water supply. Since then more than 7,600 Haitians have died and over 600,000 have gotten sick.

If Haiti were any other country in this hemisphere, a human-created disaster of this proportion would be a big international scandal, and everyone would know about it.  And the institution responsible for the inflicting this damage – in this case the U.N. – would be held accountable. At the very least they would have to get rid of the epidemic.

In this case, getting rid of the epidemic could be easily accomplished. Cholera is transmitted mainly through drinking water that is contaminated by the deadly bacteria.  To get rid of it, you need to create the infrastructure so that people have clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that this would cost about $1 billion for Haiti.  That is close to what the U.N. has been spending in just one year to keep its 10,000 troops in the country. 

Furthermore, these troops have no legitimate mission in Haiti.  They are not “peacekeeping” troops as they are often inaccurately described. There is no “peace agreement” for them to enforce, nor is there a “post-conflict” situation that would justify their presence. In fact, the troops were brought into Haiti in 2004, after Haiti’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a coup that the United States and its allies helped organize. Their stay in Haiti has been marred by a series of scandals and abuses, including the killing of civilians, and a number of prominent cases of rape and sexual abuse of Haitians.  According to polling data, most Haitians do not want them there.

So there is one obvious source of money for ridding the country of cholera.  But there is also plenty of money that governments pledged after the earthquake that has not been disbursed. Only about 53 percent of the $5.35 billion pledged by international donors has been delivered. For the U.S. government it is just 27 percent (PDF), or $250 million of $900 million pledged. If these governments want to help the U.N. fix the mess that they created, they have already committed the funds to do so.  And why shouldn’t they pay?  It wasn’t the Haitian people that invited these troops to Haiti in the first place – it was the “international community.”  

The U.N. is still denying its responsibility, despite studies published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even by the U.N. itself tracking the origin of Haiti’s cholera bacteria to U.N. soldiers. A study by a team of 15 scientists last year produced even more conclusive evidence, using whole genome sequence typing and two other methods that matched the cholera strain in Haiti to a sample from Nepal that was taken at the time that the Nepalese U.N. troops arrived in the country. In short, there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the U.N. mission is responsible for bringing this disease to Haiti.

What’s more outrageous is that cholera is still killing people in Haiti. Since the rainy season started in April, more than 514 Haitians have died from cholera and more than 60,000 people have been made sick.  In any other country in this hemisphere, this would be considered an outrage, especially given the origin of the epidemic.

Last year CEPR published a report showing that international health providers had cut back on cholera treatment facilities just before the rainy season, contributing to a spike in cholera infections. Unfortunately the same thing happened this year:  by June, there were just 61 cholera treatment units and 17 treatment centers, as compared with 205 and 38 the year before. Partners in Health is warning that cholera funding from the CDC is about to expire, even as a new surge in infections is expected in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

After the earthquake there was much talk about “building back better” in Haiti, with disappointing results. The very least that the international community can do is to fix the damage that they themselves have caused since the earthquake. And that means starting right now, with the urgency that any other country would expect in matters of life and death.

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