Haiti is well acquainted with challenge. In any given year, a typical Haitian household will face multiple shocks—which may include hurricanes, floods, disease, death, unemployment or any combination thereof.
For Haitians, some might say that COVID-19 is only the latest thing. But it is a critical thing.
Even before the pandemic, almost 59 percent of the Haitian population was living in poverty, with 23.8 percent in extreme poverty and more than 60 percent unable to meet basic needs.
Of all the challenges Haitians face, health shocks take the greatest toll on household incomes. With limited access to insurance or credit, many families cope by borrowing money, selling assets, or taking children out of school. The poor have even fewer options, and coping with the pandemic may have long-term negative impacts–decreasing their food supply, depleting their savings or alienating them from their social networks.
Above and beyond the UNEP mandate
Since 2017, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has worked in close partnership with Haiti’s national Directorate for Civil Protection, developing early-warning systems to reduce disaster risks–particularly in the country’s small but densely populated southern islands, exposed to storms with 300 kilometers per hour winds.
Strictly speaking, pandemic response is not part of UNEP’s mandate to support Haiti’s Ministry of Environment. But when COVID-19 hit, the Port Salut office knew it would have to extend beyond its usual reach.
UNEP Haiti Program Officer, Jean-Max Milien says, “COVID-19 has pushed every limit. Our adaptability—the fact that we are ready and willing to do whatever is needed–is not just important to our work. It underpins the relationship we have with the people of Haiti.”
UNEP Haiti has been supporting national institutions on their response and protection plans, helping incorporate pandemic risks—especially with regard to sanitation. The organization is also working closely with local communities, supporting partners to raise awareness and put mitigation measures into place.
Haiti’s unique challenges
Strict limitations on movement and widespread adoption of sanitation measures–the go-to response in many other countries hit by COVID-19–are less straight-forward in Haiti.
With the majority of Haitians earning their livelihoods through informal work like fishing, direct services or street vending, a ban on such activities would not only be difficult to impose, it could also cripple household incomes. In fact, according to the World Bank, a 20 percent reduction in household consumption could push another million people into poverty and 2.5 million into extreme poverty.
At the same time, access to water and sanitation is disparate, at best. Even in metropolitan Port-au-Prince, for example, only about 55 percent of the population has access to the public water network. And while access to piped and other improved water sources is increasing for the rural top 20, it is decreasing for the rest of the rural population.
Simple interventions with big impact
UNEP Haiti and its partners, the Directorate of Civil Protection and Pêche Artisanale et Développement Intégré, started with the simple act of handwashing. And it wasn’t just the act that was simple.
Handwashing units were constructed from repurposed cooking oil buckets, fitted with taps and tubes. A local producer installed 1,200 handwashing points while training community members to build the same types of units in the Marine Protected Areas of Port-Salut, Saint-Jean-du-Sud and La Cahouane. Communities are now equipped to expand the initiative and refill the handwashing units with water and bleach when needed.
To encourage their use, handwashing points are located where communities gather most frequently: local associations, shops, restaurants, hotels and main roads, ensuring access even for the most isolated. The repurposed buckets are also branded with messages, encouraging people to wash their hands and reduce their risk of infection. In April, a sound-equipped truck issued the same messages as it moved throughout inland and coastline communities every day.
These simple interventions are not only effective and cost-efficient, they also enforce UNEP’s duty of care—allowing space and not exposing any partner or person to unnecessary risk while establishing the campaign. Moreover, because of their small budget, additional funds remain and will allow UNEP to provide further support, in case the disease peaks.