One month after the Haiti earthquake, where are we? The international television units are mostly gone, a smattering of foreign reporters are still in Port-au-Prince, and what’s the situation on the ground?
Dire, virtually overwhelmed, hopelessness and helplessness.
The Haitian government now estimates that 230,000 people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake. Relief agencies say that they are still only providing immediate relief and haven’t been able to even consider rebuilding and long-term housing. Will things get better any time soon?
My former colleague at the Washington Post, Peter Slevin, reported from Port au Prince: “Haiti is tumbling headlong through a crisis that has not begun to abate, with evidence everywhere that current relief efforts are falling short.”
It’s difficult to know what to say. All along, it has been evident that without a massive effort to start over in Haiti – a Marshall plan-like international operation the likes of which has never been seen – that country will be suffering unbelievable, ineffable horrors.
Slevin wrote: “The sadness is sometimes suffocating, yet the agony of last month’s earthquake is being overtaken by the urgency of now. Every day, tens of thousands of Haitians face a grueling quest to find food, any food. A nutritious diet is out of the question.”
This is not an appeal for money. Many of us have given money. Well-meaning artists have given their energy and their names to raising funds. International organizations are there, the U.S. military has been there. It’s not nearly enough.
What can be done? A lot more than naming a commission comprised by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to raise money for the rescue. Clinton by the way was in Haiti recently, and someone asked if he would be taking over as the virtual leader of the country.
He said it was probably in response to several realities — the Haitian government and the president Rene Preval are hardly visible and hardly leading anything. Second, Clinton has been deeply concerned and even before the earthquake was the special U.S. envoy to the country. (It is not known what Bush has contributed to the rescue effort).
And above all, Haitians are looking for rescue, and they don’t trust their institutions, such as they are.
Perhaps, says another long-time colleague, Amy Wilentz, who has one of the clearest understandings of Haiti among Americans, “that with all the misery, you begin to see that Haiti’s soul resides in its people. Out of this horror, maybe they will finally be released. That is, if the rains or another quake doesn’t stop them in their tracks.”
She warns against complacency, even against tacit racism directed toward Haiti, by people who say the situation is hopeless. She says that the story must endure, and we must continue to shout out on behalf of the Haitian people.
Wilentz wrote last week about a form of “genteel racism” that has set in among some commentators about Haiti, as if there was something wrong with Haitians inherently that relegates them to misery. She rightly decries that attitude.
A reading of Haitian history shows marked colonial mistreatment, disregard and neglect: “Armchair commentators who know nothing about Haiti — many never having set toe there…enjoy rebuking suffering Haitians from the comfort of their white bastions in the United States and Europe.”
Wilentz, writing in the Nation, is recommended reading:
“We need constructive answers….Good ideas are coming in from people like Paul Farmer, who’s run Haiti’s Partners in Health for years and who is now Bill Clinton’s deputy at the United Nations. They’re coming in from Haitian survivors in all rubble-strewn walks of life….people like this are trying to find a way toward rebuilding Haiti, and building it better.
“You have a choice in a situation like the one we’re confronting. You can sit back in your chair and fondle your nihilism, or you can try to be original and work toward something creative.” Some people, she says, “will shrug…and turn away. In a moment of such death and destruction, that’s not the reaction one should hope to elicit.”
– Peter Eisner