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A lesson from Haiti on ignorance during epidemics

March 12, 2020, 6:55 PM UTC

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The smallest gestures can mean so much.

About 10 years ago, I took the first of many reporting trips to Haiti. It was my first time experiencing extreme poverty, and my first opportunity to understand how people who live there were, in this particular case, trying to build safe and sustainable water and sanitation systems.

One of the things I was not expecting was how quickly I became part of day-to-day life.

Walking to collect water, reciting verses in school, sitting in planning meetings, even cooking together in communal kitchens. And then it was time to go. Because these things imprint on you, it felt natural and normal to stand up in the back of our pickup truck, raise my hands to my face, and blow good-bye kisses to the kids I’d been playing with for days.

One problem, though. 

I’d just encouraged children whose community had not-long-ago been devasted by a preventable cholera epidemic, and who did not have access to clean water or adequate latrines, to bring their hands to their mouths.

Their look of confusion was enough to shock me into recognizing my ignorance. I had been through the same handwashing training that local sanitation experts provided for them. I had practiced the elbow bump greeting. I’d been to infectious disease briefings. And still, I had missed it. I had failed to connect the most basic dots.

My cheeks burn with shame at the memory. 

Since then, I’ve learned to take my own ignorance more seriously, and even embrace it as a strength—and a reminder that good intentions mean nothing if you hurt people. 

I’ve been thinking about that Haiti trip a lot lately, and how much damage I’d nearly done. Small things can have big impacts on people. It’s up to everyone to know whether that impact will be good or bad.

The U.S. is on the front end of a frightening epidemiological curve. It’s imperative we all try to flatten it.

For all those who blame the threat on “third world countries,” or dismiss the coronavirus by saying “oh, it only affects old people,” or refuse to cancel your plans or adjust your behavior because of some rugged individualist nonsense, I want you to know I see you.

And I’m blowing you a kiss.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

Time’s Up issues a statement on national paid sick leave Noting that the U.S. is one of only two Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave for workers, Tina Tchen, president and CEO of Time's Up, issued a statement asking Congress to pass the Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal Family Care Act. "[A]t least 32 million U.S. workers—including nurses, caregivers, and those in food service who work directly with the public—do not have access to a single paid sick day,” she said. “More than half of Latinas and one-third of Black women do not have the option to take paid time off when they are sick and seven out of 10 workers in low-paid jobs do not have paid sick days.” Not only is this morally wrong, it is now clearly dangerous.
Times Up Now

You will not be quarantine-watching "Song of The South" anytime soon Disney executive chairman Bob Iger confirmed that the 1946 racist manifesto will not be digitized and re-released as part of the Disney+ streaming service, even with a disclaimer to flag the “outdated cultural depictions.” Iger told shareholders yesterday that the film, set on a Georgia plantation after the Civil War, is “not appropriate in today’s world.”

Chinese immigrants are buying guns to protect themselves This story is focused on the rush to buy guns in California, but I imagine similar fears are playing out in Chinese neighborhoods across the U.S. One gun shop in San Gabriel Valley reports that their Chinese customer base has jumped from about half to 70%. Many are citing their personal safety. "People won't have money, and they won't be able to eat," said one man, speaking in Mandarin to reporter Josie Huang. "And if they don't have food, they'll have to steal." Another said she was afraid she’d be attacked for being Chinese. It hasn’t happened yet, but "I just see the news."

On Background

Here’s your pandemic reading list While this list is weighted toward western white men, Tobias Carroll manages to find some excellent examples from other authors and cultures. I was happy to learn about Blindness by José Saramago, Severance by Ling Ma, and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, a non-fiction history of Zambia that covers the colonial era through the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic. Taken together, the list a fascinating snapshot of how even fictional plagues and epidemics have been used to explain and explore a variety of real-world issues. Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin tells the story of a pandemic that kills only men, and the government's inaction that allowed it to happen. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake explores a world nearly destroyed by a plague induced by genetic engineering. 

How the NBA thinks about diversity and inclusion I recently met NBA executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer Oris Stuart and was instantly impressed. (Stay tuned for more.) In this interview with The Undefeated, he joins NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum in a deepish dive into how the league thinks about diversity, and how they know where and how to make systemic changes. “We are always also looking at the big picture,” says Stuart, which includes making sure women and people of color are represented in league leadership. It means looking for people who have been successful in other fields, which he admits has been a harder conversation. “[T]he openness to consider incredible talent regardless of the sector that they operated is just another example of being open-minded, being inclusive, casting a wide net.”
The Undefeated

The UN: More than just cholera The Associated Press did an exhaustive investigation of rampant child sexual abuse among U.N. peacekeeping forces, first in Haiti, and then in other locations. The stories are horrific. “An Associated Press investigation of U.N. missions during the past 12 years found nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and other personnel around the world—signaling the crisis is much larger than previously known.” In Haiti alone, an internal UN report found that at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. No one was punished. Other reports include gang rapes of older victims. There is also the question of the cholera epidemic strain linked to Nepalese U.N. workers. "Imagine if the UN was going to the United States and raping children and bringing cholera," said one Haitian human rights lawyer. "Human rights aren't just for rich white people."

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


"If any country was a mine-shaft canary for the reintroduction of cholera, it was Haiti—and we knew it. And in retrospect, more should have been done to prepare for cholera... which can spread like wildfire in Haiti... This was a big rebuke to all of us working in public health and health care in Haiti.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, founding director of Partners in Health.