Apocalyptic Haiti

The numbers are not yet tallied, but the deaths could top 200,000. Dominican novelist Junot Diaz called the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti nothing short of an apocalypse. “The numbers are abstractions to us,” he said at a Harvard symposium last week. “The U.S. lost 60,000 soldiers in Vietnam, and yet that war haunts this nation still.”

The Pulitzer-winning author’s point: That we can’t imagine the unspeakable pain in Haiti. He spoke at a symposium co-sponsored by Harvard’s Committee on African Studies and the DuBois Institute, part of a panel that also included doctors Marie-Louise Jean-Baptiste and Jennifer Leaning, and public-health crisis experts Gregg Greenough and Patrick Sylvain. The Barker Center meeting hall was packed with students, activists and scholars alike. Some nuggets from the talk:

• That the Dominican Republic’s aid and solidarity on behalf of Haiti surprised people like Diaz, who recalled the 1937 genocide of Haitians by Dominicans and the complicated, racist history between them that existed for most of the past century.

• Diaz: “We belong to a civilization that seems quite happy having a nation of people so close living in such misery that an earthquake could put the entire nation — not just the bodies — at risk.” When the audience burst into applause at this comment, he chided, “There’s too much work to be done for clapping.”

• 40 percent of Haitians have never had any health care whatsoever, and only half of the country’s children have been immunized against measles, Greenough reported. Among the biggest risks he foresees is the spread of measles, malaria and Denghe amid the 450 camps set up for the displaced.

• Leaning said she was particularly worried about children who are orphaned and/or separated from their parents. “They’re very vulnerable to slavery, abuse, precipitous adoption. . . . . As well-meaning as adoptive parents think they are, we need to help adults in Haiti take care of the children there.” She said this within hours of the arrest of several members of an Idaho Baptist church for trafficking as they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country.

• Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-born Cambridge physician, described a a 56-year-old Haitian woman who can’t sleep or concentrate to work since the earthquake (Boston has the third largest Haitian population in the United States). The woman lost one of her three children to the earthquake, and a second child has been displaced. “There’s nobody I know from Haiti who hasn’t lost a family member, a close friend or neighbor,” Jean-Baptiste added.

Haitian immigrants are always thinking about Haiti and going back, many of them building houses with remittances they send home rather than saving up for retirement here, panelists explained. Many of those houses have been destroyed, so “this is a human tragedy with physical and mental health losses and financial losses,” Jean-Baptiste said, adding that Haitians have a strong stigma against seeking counseling or psychiatric care. “Remember, PTSD doesn’t only last a year; this is something that will be with people for a very long time.”

Sylvain fears that by March people will be so hungry and destitute they might resort to taking food by force in the countryside. “You’re seeing a reverse migration with some people returning to the countryside but without the necessary support there or kinship established.” He fears the country’s renewed friendship with the D.R. could be jeopardized by so many Haitians’ moving closer to the border. “There are just so many waves of potential for people getting even more distressed,” he said.

As Paul Farmer put it in his recent Miami Herald editorial: “A plane full of requested personnel and supplies circling overhead while people die is the right metaphor for the challenges facing us.”

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