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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
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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

Quote

"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.