A Not So Bon Repos

November 5, 2010

 Joegodson and Paul

Joegodson started out for Bon Repos at five o’clock on Thursday morning from Delmas 33. While it’s only a few kilometres away, the taptap ride would take an hour and a half. His brother Jhony went in the other direction from Simon to the public hospital in the centre of Port-au-Prince in order to save a place in line for their father, Deland. The brothers wanted a doctor to diagnose Deland before the hurricane struck. Joegodson has taken him to hospitals twice before, but Deland’s health is deteriorating rapidly.

There were already hundreds waiting in line when Jhony arrived a couple of hours in advance of the eight o’clock opening. Joegodson was having a difficult time getting his father into a taptap for the long journey. His mind is hazy at best. Although only forty-eight, he is moving like an old man whose time has come. He doesn’t eat any more and has very little strength.

After the normal frustrations that are part of any effort in Port-au-Prince, Joegodson arrived with Deland and slipped into the place that Jhony had reserved in line. During their long wait, an educator described to the captive audience how to protect themselves from the cholera epidemic. Joegodson was the only one to ask questions. Others seemed to listen, but it’s not clear what they were thinking. In response to his question, the woman said that even if you buy treated water or boil it, you should still add an aquatab, because otherwise there is no certainty that the bacteria are destroyed. Perhaps that response accounts for the disinterest of the crowd. Aquatabs are for sale in the pharmacies. If the woman was correct, even infected water that must be purchased (again: water is a commodity for sale in Port-au-Prince) needs then to be purified at a cost. Joegodson thinks that the people in line have stopped listening because they can’t afford the answers. It’s clear to everyone that the things that save your life are expensive. The things that are free only tell you what to buy.

Joegodson says that people have no response to advice that they should purify water they can’t afford with tablets they can’t afford. They may as well be told to stop drinking. “It’s like telling people not to breath because the air is polluted.”

After hours in line, it was Deland’s turn to see a doctor for a quick and cursory diagnosis: typhus and malaria. There was almost no discussion with the overworked doctor. He prescribed antibiotics and gave Joegodson a preliminary dose so that Deland could begin treatment immediately. The consultation was free. The drugs will be expensive. Although the doctor had only a couple of minutes to spend with them, we can read that diagnosis back into symptoms that appeared months ago. Rashes had broken out on Deland’s skin in the summer. Both endemic and epidemic typhus cause the kind of rashes that he developed. The former is spread by fleas on rats. The rat population of Port-au-Prince seems to have profited from the earthquake, as the rodents could get to bodies and food covered by the rubble. Also, the earthquake transformed human housing into prime rat real estate. On the other hand, his symptoms are closer to epidemic typhus; spread by lice that host on people. The lack of water and soap has compromised the care that poor Haitians have always accorded to personal hygiene and appearance.

Everything is for sale. Joegodson observes that an entire industry is forming in Port-au-Prince based upon exploiting crises. He arrived at this conclusion without ever having heard of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (a sound thesis well argued and supported). He says that people are conditioned now to imagine how they might profit from the next crises. The hurricane, the earthquake, and the string of epidemics: all have winners and losers. The losers often die; the winners stave off death and sometimes make a killing.

Joegodson’s thesis deserves consideration. We can do it by simply following him on Thursday before the hurricane struck. Disaster capitalism is now an on-going way of life in Haiti. Desperate poverty is the source of profit. Haiti is not unique. As environmental, medical, and climatic disasters multiply, capitalists are lining up to profit. Some of them appear in humanitarian clothing: they are helping the victims. According to Joegodson, it is an almost universal tenet among the Haitian poor that the people and groups that are praised in other countries for helping the desperate Haitian masses are profiting and promoting their special interests.

The presence of these vested interests explains why well-heeled First Worlders are going to irrational lengths to convince themselves that they are supporting the Haitian poor all the while they refuse to enter into dialogue with them. There is a principle that binds the two authors from two separate worlds: the notion that all people are equal. This philosophy is universal in the realm of rhetoric and radical in its implications.

The rich have almost total control of the economy. In the context of continuous crises, they look only to expand their power. There is no limit to the indignities that the poor in Haiti must suffer or the profits that the rich can accrue. They are working in tandem. Lavalas once shifted the vision from material well being to dignity. Everyone must live in dignity regardless of his or her material circumstances. Under this philosophy, your social responsibility was to work towards the dignity of all. As Aristide showed in his writings and Peter Hallwood in his history, lavalas is anathema to the powerful in Haiti and everywhere. The defenders of the rich in Haiti and Washington and Ottawa are offended by the notion of universal human dignity. “Profit is more important than life here,” says Joegodson. “Lives are in the balance everywhere, and people look only for how they might profit.” He says that even the woman who was hired to explain the propagation of the cholera epidemic was happy to have a job. But the people in the line-up were less impressed.

As Joegodson rode with Deland back to Bon Repos, where an unmarried female cousin temporarily hosts him in a tiny abode a little more peaceful than Cite Soleil, they passed the pools of waste dumped along the side of the road by the companies who profit from emptying the cisterns of Port-au-Prince. He began a conversation with his fellow taptap riders. While everyone is telling them to protect themselves – at a price – from death by cholera, companies are profiting from dumping human waste anywhere they like. To the passengers, Joegodson was stating the obvious: the government doesn’t work for our interests, they all responded. “What’s new?”

The doctor told Joegodson that if his father doesn’t eat and take his medicine, he will die. The medicine is expensive. Joegodson has almost no money left. If he trusts the woman educator, he must also buy aquatabs for the twelve people that depend on him, (brothers, sisters, nieces, father, cousin, and pregnant wife) or they might die. His tooth was aching as we spoke about his dilemma. Since the earthquake, he has had an abscess that is growing more painful. But any time he has made a few dollars, there is something far more vital than his dental health.

Since the doctor had no time and Joegodson has no access to information, Paul researched typhus in Canada. The diagnosis seems to explain symptoms that Deland has been exhibiting for some time, like delirium. Deland’s outbursts may be the result of typhus (or malaria for that matter.) The rashes that appeared on his waist in the summer probably mark the early stages of his disease. His recent vomiting may result from malaria. The doctor didn’t tell Joegodson how typhus was spread or that it is contagious. And so Deland went back into Haitian society with nothing but a prescription that he can’t afford and a disease that he might spread.

As we spoke in the morning, Hurricane Tomas was dumping rain on Port-au-Prince. The human waste that companies have dumped at the side of the road – and any cholera bacteria hitching a ride – will soon be somewhere else in Port-au-Prince.

In the absence of a radical restructuring of the Haitian (and global) economy, the growth industries in Haiti will be health and security/prisons. Both of those industries profit in the current economy from crushing poverty and consequent social collapse.

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