A Forgotten Epidemic

This week’s blog, first posted on Third Way Cafe, is written by Katharine Oswald, MCC policy analyst and advocacy coordinator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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Haiti is home to the world’s worst cholera epidemic today. The outbreak was instigated in 2010, unknowingly, by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers. Five years later, Haitians are still waiting for an adequate response to this disaster.

I sat beneath an almond tree in Poirée, a rice-planting village on the outskirts of St. Marc, in northwestern Haiti. Though 40 townspeople formed a tight circle around my makeshift interview station, my attention was focused on the slight woman seated across from me.

“Did you contract cholera?” I asked her.

 “Yes.”

“Did anyone else in your family contract it?”

A pause. Her eyes darted from my own to the ground beneath us. Then Renette launched into her story: “My name is Renette Viergélan. I am 31 years old. In 2010, I was struck by cholera. While I was in the hospital, my baby also became sick with cholera. Before I regained consciousness, he had died.”

Renette has two surviving children, but she admitted her thoughts are ‘’consumed by the memory of [her] baby.’’ With her town’s continued reliance on river water and poor access to medical care, she is afraid she or her children will contract the disease again.

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Images of Renette Viergélan (far right) and other cholera victims were put on display across from U.N. headquarters in New York during General Assembly meetings in October 2015. Photo credit: New Media Advocacy Project.

It was September 2015, and I was interviewing cholera victims and their families as part of the Face | Justice campaign, which commemorated the five-year anniversary of cholera’s infamous introduction to Haiti. The campaign showcased images and testimonies of those affected by cholera at the U.N. in New York, Port-au-Prince and Geneva.

The pain wrought by cholera in Haiti is evident in individual stories like Renette’s. Yet the scale of the devastation is not grasped until one confronts the numbers – cholera has killed 8,987 Haitians and infected over 762,000. Joseph, a young man in a neighboring village, shared bluntly, “Every family in my community has lost something…because of cholera.’’

Cholera was unknown in Haiti before 2010. It travelled here through the unlikeliest of sources. Nepalese troops with MINUSTAH, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti, were stationed at a base near Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Sewage from the base, contaminated with a particular strand of cholera endemic to Nepal, leaked into the river when it was negligently disposed of by a U.N. contractor.

The disease quickly spread to all corners of the country. After a gradual reduction in infection rates over the past three years, new cases are now on the rise. It appears that cholera is in Haiti to stay.

The U.N.’s role in creating this humanitarian disaster is now undeniable, yet it still has not accepted responsibility for its actions. Instead it has developed a sweeping Cholera Elimination Plan–which is only 18 percent funded after five years of fundraising efforts. As a key decision-maker within the U.N. system, the U.S. government should use its unique position to help fund the Plan and encourage the U.N. to publicly acknowledge its negligence.

With such a poor international response, and the Haitian government reticent to make demands of the U.N., victims’ hope for remedies have waned. However, the people we spoke with are clear: they want their pain to be acknowledged; they want better lives for their communities; they want international donors to live up to their humanitarian principles; and they want the U.N. to finally face justice.

In the face of fear, choose joy

This Christmas greeting to MCC’s supporters, constituents and friends was prepared by Don Peters, executive director of MCC Canada. 

During this season of Advent, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. We long for God’s justice, peace and mercy to be fully revealed on earth.

Today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. Fear is all pervasive. Fear of terrorism. Fear for the economy. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear can entangle and paralyze us.

Christmas Iraq

The grounds of Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, Iraq, are a makeshift home to many people who fled violence elsewhere in Iraq. Last Christmas, this life-size nativity was set up in a canvas tent that housed displaced Iraqi families before the sturdier tents in the background were constructed. “Jesus’ tent” is written in Arabic on the tent flap. Placing the nativity in the tent was a powerful symbol linking families’ suffering with the suffering of Christ. (MCC photo)

But our faith encourages us to embrace an impassioned, joyful and trusting response to life. Isaiah 12:2 says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And in the first two chapters of Luke, there are four references to fear and three references to joy, often only a verse or two apart. Fear and joy are not incompatible ideas. From my work with MCC, I see daily that this is true. 

Despite the fear of terrorism, we’ve witnessed your deep desire to welcome refugees. The MCC offices have been inundated with calls from churches, families, neighbourhood associations and community groups who want to bring refugees to safety and welcome them to a new life in Canada. In her poem “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

We are thankful for all of you who have heard the call to walk with refugees on their journey and welcome them warmly into your congregations, homes and communities.

Despite fears of scarcity and a bad economy, we’ve seen you give generously to help those in need. Thanks to your support, we’re able to provide relief to people affected by violence or disaster around the world. Our partners are distributing winter supplies to families in countries from Syria to Nepal. With your help, we’re providing education in places like Lebanon, South Sudan and here in Canada. And because of your generosity, we support courageous peacebuilders in places like Afghanistan and Honduras. We are thankful to all of you who have chosen generosity in the face of scarcity.

When faced with fear of the other, we’ve seen you choose friendship. In the media, it’s easy to see prejudice and fear of people who are different from ourselves. But time and time again, we’ve seen you choose friendship. Christian churches have partnered with Muslim groups to sponsor refugees. Churches have spoken out in support of reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous peoples. And volunteers have helped people reintegrate in their community after serving time in prison. When presented with the choice to fear the unknown, we’ve seen you build bridges and love your neighbour, no matter who that neighbour might be.

In this season of Advent, we bring our fears to God. We long to be released from the power of fear over our lives. As you’ve shown us repeatedly, fear cannot stop us from reaching out with compassion to help those in need. Thank you for the many ways you have helped us share relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

Sincerely,

Don Peters
Executive Director, MCC Canada