Dr. Aimee Chagnon says Haitians feel abandoned by the world
After the 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of people, Bay Area physician Aimee Chagnon was sickened by the widespread devastation. So she did something about it: she volunteered a few days later and in February, she went to Haiti and stayed for 12 days treating victims. She returned to Haiti in June, but before she left, Northside San Francisco
caught up with her.
Whom are you working for in Haiti, and where in Haiti are you going?
World Wide Village (WWV), a nonprofit group out of the Midwest with ties to the University of Iowa. Everyone [Haitian nationals and U.S. doctors] working at the clinic is living in tents or under tarps, often in these huge tent cities, but they always showed up for work, never complained, although everyone in the town of Leogane had lost friends and family in the quake. It’s worth noting the clinic run by WWV saw well over 17,000 patients between the quake and the first part of May.
Leogane was the epicenter of the quake – it’s about 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince. It lost 30 percent of its population of 120,000 in the quake, and has lost thousands more in the diseases and wounds that followed.
I was first there in February. I got involved in a roundabout way – it was actually my husband, Daniel Nichols, who is an architect, who wanted to go. I asked him if he was crazy – it was a hellhole, a disaster under the best of circumstances, and even worse now, but then I saw the footage coming over the news and Internet. I volunteered on January 15th, but didn’t think anyone would take me up on it. I mean, I’m a neurologist! We are known mostly for diagnosing things, not so much for fixing things. Before I knew it, I was taking typhoid vaccine and canceling patients. I felt more like a doctor there than I do on a day-to-day basis in the American health care system, and many of my colleagues there said the same thing.
Haiti has fallen off the media’s radar screen. Are NGOs (nongovernmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and World Wide Village) and humanitarian groups still staffed well?
There are many NGOs still there – they call Haiti “the land of the NGOs” since there were thousands and thousands of them there even before the quake. However, while the response of the international medical community was truly stunning in the immediate post-quake period, there has been a huge downsizing of medical personnel as the months have worn on. This has been especially true as the rainy season has started, which is one reason why I chose June to travel. After haggling, cajoling and guilting for months, I managed to get our team staffed well. There’s only one other field hospital in Leogane to serve the entire city.
Many news managers are white men in suits in New York … several of us call news coverage decisions “white man’s news.” This is cynical, but do you think Haiti has suffered from viewer/reader/listener fatigue?
As for the media, while I admit there are many other things happening in the world, what happened in Haiti is virtually unprecedented. The best estimates are that at least 250,000 people died in the first quake, with probably 300,000 dead from direct results of the quake. Can you imagine that? The devastation is overwhelming in person; seeing it on TV doesn’t do it justice. Now the only possible “silver lining” of such horrific death and destruction is that it is an opportunity to rebuild this close neighbor of ours, and it looked like the world was responding in January and February – even into March. But then there was fatigue and boredom as the disaster got older. Now you can’t even find Haiti on the mainstream media. The Haitians are starting to realize the world is turning away from them.
As for the people who direct news and decide what leads, I can only imagine the situation in Haiti must seem very far away from New York skyscrapers and plush offices. I’m sure, as with many professions, those making the decisions tend not to be the ones on the ground. It’s certainly true in medicine!
I have been struck by the increasing wave of nationalistic attitude, which is exhibited in response to stories of personnel going to Haiti – especially medical personnel, but also other professionals like architects and engineers. There is an overt and very ugly attitude that says, “let’s fix our own problems first, then you can go elsewhere.” What a simplistic, ignorant and incredibly heartless thing to say.
I’d like everyone to understand exactly why Haiti is in such dire straits right now: The rains are coming and their deforested land is going to flood and slide, so almost no matter where you are in Haiti, you’re going to have problems. Then the diseases that are not even part of American experience any longer, like typhoid, cholera and tetanus will rise at record rates. Other diseases that we feel we have beaten like TB and polio, or some we have never had to worry about like yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria will overwhelm many.
Why do you think so many people have been touched by Haiti?
It sounds almost cliché, but it’s the people. We would walk through the town of Leogane – what was once a jewel in the French colonial crown – where 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed. I’d never seen a mass grave before, but I saw one there. After the cemetery was filled with shallow graves, the U.N. dug a massive trench and bulldozed thousands upon thousands of bodies into it. Can you imagine? Many, many bodies remain in the rubble. We’d be approached by neighbors and friends who wanted to be sure we knew something of the people, many times entire families, buried in the pile in front of us. They’d put personal effects of the dead in front of the houses, and even with the poverty and desperation rampant in Haiti, no one ever touched the things. This included a very new-looking pair of Nike Air sneakers.
A veteran overseas cameraman we spoke with said Cite Soleil is the scariest place he’s ever been. How terrifying are Haiti’s slums?
I had the benefit of driving through the slums, and Leogane is a nice town as far as Haitian towns go. We went out to the outskirts – I called them “ultra-rural” – on several occasions to do mobile health clinics; [they] which were quite poor, but they were not slums. Cite Soleil and a number of other “suburbs” of Port au Prince are known to be very rough. Even with that, it is still a very bad idea to be out after dark, especially if one is female. Sexual assault is rampant, especially in tent cities, as there is no power and there is a strong sense that women are second-class citizens. This is changing, but rape was only outlawed officially around 2005.
Haiti was poor, corrupt and dysfunctional before the quake. How is it now?
Poor, dysfunctional, and corrupt! They are the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, have the lowest rate of education (education is free, but they need shoes and sometimes uniforms, which are not affordable), highest rate of infant, maternal, and child mortality in the Western world, and among the highest for all in the world. It is worth remembering that this country is 90 minutes by air from Miami. The corruption reaches to the highest levels of government, though [current Haitian President Rene] Preval is widely considered free of corruption. However, there are increasingly loud factions demanding the return of [ousted former President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide and even Baby Doc [President Jean-Claude Duvalier, overthrown in 1986] be allowed to return. Their attitude is that even if there was corruption in those governments, they were strong leaders, and no one would consider Preval strong. The corruption and dysfunction goes well beyond the Haitian power structure, however, with disaster profiteers flocking to Haiti. One estimate is that only about one cent for every dollar pledged has reached the people of Haiti, because everyone skims off their cut.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would end this by pleading – begging if necessary – that we Americans, citizens of the wealthiest country in the world, do not turn our backs on Haiti. We have an opportunity to rebuild an entire country, and to be sure it’s done correctly this time. If we fail, we will be held accountable when the history of this event is written. I have no doubt that if we fail in this, it will cast a considerable shadow on any of our other achievements. There is a moral and ethical imperative for us to act, or at the very least, to support the efforts being made.
Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org