Cholera spreading, affecting election campaigns in Haiti

27 October 2010

By Jacque­line Charles, Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE – First pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly asked for a days­long cam­paign truce. Then, oppo­nent Jude Célestin announced that he was tem­porar­ily sus­pend­ing all radio and TV ads, and called on his oppo­nents to follow.

Now, Leslie Voltaire is ask­ing to post­pone the Nov. 28 election.

A deadly out­break of cholera in an already earthquake-wracked Haiti has become one more com­pli­ca­tion in a nation still grap­pling with the effects of the dev­as­tat­ing Jan. 12 earth­quake that left an esti­mated 300,000 Haitians dead and at least 1.5 mil­lion Haitians liv­ing under­neath tents and tarps.

As cam­paign jin­gles con­tinue to play on local radios and three pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates taped a tele­vised debate Wednes­day morn­ing, Haiti health offi­cials reported that after days of suc­cess­fully con­tain­ing the epi­demic to the rural val­ley where it first broke last week, cholera had finally spread.

Offi­cials said 174 cases had been con­firmed in the city of Arc­ahia, a small rural vil­lage 20 miles north of Port-au-Prince. There were also sus­pected cases in nearby Cabaret, and they were inves­ti­gat­ing reports in Cité Soleil, a slum in the cap­i­tal not far from the main inter­na­tional airport.

The water­borne bac­te­r­ial infec­tion had killed 303 Haitians, includ­ing five in Arc­ahia, and hos­pi­tal­ized 4,722 Haitians, the gov­ern­ment said late Wednesday.

“It’s encroach­ing, and we are tak­ing mea­sures,” said Dr. Ariel Henry, the chief of cab­i­net for the Min­istry of Health. “We are train­ing peo­ple on the ground to give out oral rehy­dra­tion salts. We are putting in place cholera treat­ment cen­ters. We are also doing a big effort all over the coun­try with 50,000 peo­ple. We are train­ing them, and we are prepar­ing to deploy them.”

The health min­istry has not asked for a delay of the vote, but it has asked can­di­dates to refrain from hold­ing ral­lies in cholera-affected com­mu­ni­ties. For some like Voltaire, an urban plan­ner who is among the 19 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates seek­ing to replace Pres­i­dent René Pré­val, that is not good enough.

“The vote should hap­pen when the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion says it is con­tained, or when the [Pro­vi­sional Elec­toral Coun­cil] says this elec­tion will not use ral­lies,” Voltaire said.

So far, nei­ther the WHO, which is work­ing along­side Hait­ian health offi­cials to con­tain the epi­demic, nor the elec­toral coun­cil charged with putting on the elec­tions has called for a post­pone­ment out of pub­lic health concerns.

Gail­lot Dorsinvil, pres­i­dent of the coun­cil, told The Miami Her­ald the fate of the elec­tions is up to the gov­ern­ment, and as far as the coun­cil was con­cern, the vote was mov­ing ahead as scheduled.

That mes­sage was reit­er­ated Wednes­day in Wash­ing­ton when the diplo­mat lead­ing a joint Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States/Caribbean Com­mu­nity obser­va­tion mis­sion reported that “the elec­toral process is pro­gress­ing steadily toward 28 November.”

“The polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment is more reas­sur­ing with the increas­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion of par­ties, polit­i­cal plat­forms and can­di­dates who ini­tially intended to boy­cott the elec­tions,” said Colin Grander­son, who is also the assis­tant sec­re­tary gen­eral of CARICOM.

Still, Grander­son con­ceded that the evo­lu­tion of the cholera out­break and its poten­tial impact on the process remain a concern.

Célestin, who par­tic­i­pated in the tele­vised debate Wednes­day in which the ques­tion of cholera was raised but not pos­si­ble post­pone­ment of the elec­tions, said he’s not seek­ing a delay.

Rather, he believes that Haitians should not have their atten­tions divided while the gov­ern­ment and inter­na­tional human­i­tar­ian com­mu­nity scale up a mas­sive pre­ven­tion and pub­lic edu­ca­tion cam­paign, alert­ing Haitians on how they can save them­selves from a dis­ease that kills within hours when not treated in time.

“The pop­u­la­tion should not have to lis­ten to cam­paign jin­gles while peo­ple are dying,” said Célestin, tapped by Pré­val to suc­ceed him. “To see can­di­dates put posters in a hos­pi­tal in Mire­bal­ais where peo­ple are dying, it’s sad.”

Martelly also com­plained about how some can­di­dates are try­ing to politi­cize the epi­demic to their ben­e­fit, wear­ing cam­paign T-shirts and vehi­cles as they visit the sick. He’s dis­ap­pointed, he said, that his request has fallen on deaf ears.

“We need to start work­ing together even though we may be dif­fer­ent can­di­dates,” he said. “At the end of the day, Haiti must be the priority.”

Not every­one favors a pause. Lawyer Jean-Henry Céant, who debated Célestin, said the elec­tions should con­tinue as planned. Sen. Youri Latortue, whose coali­tion is sup­port­ing long­time oppo­si­tion leader Mir­lande Mani­gat, also wants to see the sched­ule main­tain. Mani­gat had a slight lead over Célestin in a recent poll.

“We are enter­ing into this elec­tion under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, but we can­not leave the coun­try with­out a gov­ern­ment,” said Latortue, who on Tues­day sum­moned the health min­is­ter to a ses­sion to get a report on the government’s efforts. “We have a lot of prob­lems to resolve. We already do not have any money. Each time you post­pone the date that is money.”

Observers say even if no deci­sion is taken on the elec­tion, how the gov­ern­ment han­dles the out­break could influ­ence the out­come of the vote in what is emerg­ing as a com­pet­i­tive race. Though Célestin is neck-and-neck with Mani­gat in the most recent poll, he is trail­ing in a num­ber of quake-battered cities, includ­ing the cap­i­tal where observers say he’s being hurt by the government’s often-criticized han­dling of the quake response.

“If the man­age­ment of the out­break is not well-handled, it may jeop­ar­dize the government’s image or any one asso­ci­ated with the actual man­age­ment and gov­ern­ment,” said Gre­gory Brandt, pres­i­dent of the Haiti-French Cham­ber of Commerce.

Rosny Desroche said he doesn’t see how the gov­ern­ment can escape unscathed.

“Peo­ple are suf­fer­ing. Either way, the gov­ern­ment will be held respon­si­ble,” he said.

But Regi­nald Bou­los, the chair­man of the Eco­nomic Forum of the Pri­vate Sec­tor, which com­mis­sioned the poll, said cholera could also be a chance for the Pré­val gov­ern­ment to redeem itself.

“The earth­quake was a neg­a­tive for the gov­ern­ment because they didn’t react appro­pri­ately,” he said. “It could turn out to be a pos­i­tive thing if they man­age it well; if they show lead­er­ship, and com­pas­sion in the peo­ple. Or it can be a down­fall for them if again there is lack of coor­di­na­tion and waste of money, and peo­ple are dying.”