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COVID-19 Cases Double In Ill-Prepared Haiti


Haiti is not prepared for the coronavirus to hit. Top officials from the Pan American Health Organization are warning Haitians to get ready for a large-scale eruption of COVID-19, but closed borders and a global scramble for medical equipment are making it difficult for the impoverished country to get the resources it needs to address the virus. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As a physician in Haiti, Dr. Jean Pape has seen a lot in his 73 years.

JEAN PAPE: I've lived through the AIDS epidemic, TB, cholera, malaria, Zika, chikungunya.

BEAUBIEN: But trying to gear up to confront the coronavirus pandemic, he says, is different.

PAPE: This is the most difficult epidemic we had to deal with. It's been a nightmare.

BEAUBIEN: Pape is sort of Haiti's equivalent of an Anthony Fauci. Not only did he make his name toiling in the trenches in the early days of HIV, Pape is now the co-chair of the national committee on COVID-19. He says Haiti's problem is right now, it's facing this crisis at exactly the same time as the rest of the world, and they can't compete in bidding wars against France or California for supplies from China.

PAPE: Supplies are very, very expensive. And then if you're getting it by plane, the cost of a cargo plane is 1.2- to $1.5 million. I could not believe it.

BEAUBIEN: And international aid agencies which Haiti has traditionally leaned on for logistics and supplies have scaled back their operations and pulled out staff.

PAPE: Haiti always benefited from the support from their friends. And I said that the United Nation (ph) is no longer united. The nations are fighting one another.

BEAUBIEN: So Haiti is pretty much going it alone and relying on what they have on hand. The country has just two labs capable of testing for the virus. And they've only confirmed a couple hundred cases, but Pape thinks there's probably a lot more out there. That's mainly because there's a major outbreak in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and the lockdown in the D.R. is forcing Haitian workers to return home.

PAPE: We have about - over 1,000 people who are crossing every day. They've been crossing for the past four weeks because they lost their job in the D.R. So they are coming back to Haiti, and they will be bringing the virus to us.

BEAUBIEN: To a place with poor sanitation, a weak health care system and where social distancing is unrealistic. Carissa Etienne is the head of the Pan American Health Organization.

CARISSA ETIENNE: The living conditions in Haiti, like overcrowding, makes physical distancing very difficult. It's unpossible (ph), almost, to quarantine at home.

BEAUBIEN: Back in March, Haiti issued a lockdown order. It shut schools and churches. But with so many Haitians relying on daily earnings to survive, street markets and small shops remain open.

SANDRA LAMARQUE: It's very, very busy, as usual. Markets are crowded. Public transports are also crowded.

BEAUBIEN: That's Sandra Lamarque, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Port-au-Prince. Doctors Without Borders is helping to set up isolation wards for COVID-19 and assisting with information campaigns about the disease. Dr. Jean Pape says that particularly after watching what happened in ICUs in New York and Italy, Haiti is not going to try to maintain severely ill patients on ventilators or other complicated medical equipment.

PAPE: I am concentrating on what we can do, and what we can do is make sure we can provide oxygen to everybody who needs it.

BEAUBIEN: He says the goal is to get protective gear for health workers and provide basic supportive care to most patients.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.