The cholera outbreak in Haiti — the first in 50 years — has layered fresh anxiety atop long-standing misery. By Tuesday the disease had sickened more than 3,000 people and killed more than 250. While the authorities have expressed cautious hope that the outbreak might soon stabilize and remain largely confined to the rural Artibonite region, there is still fear that the disease could overwhelm the shattered capital, Port-au-Prince.
The United Nations and foreign relief agencies deserve credit for an energetic response, rapidly setting up mobile treatment centers and delivering clean water, medicine and public-service messages urging cleanliness and caution.
Aid workers have been heroic in keeping people relatively safe and healthy since the Jan. 12 earthquake. And the truth is that many of the hundreds of thousands of people who are now living in camps are in some ways better off than the millions more in Haiti’s slums, because they have better access to services. That is not very comforting. And it is not sustainable.
Haitians need what their government and international donors have promised — permanent homes and sanitation, potable water and medical systems so they do not have to depend on relief.
More than 1.3 million Haitians were left homeless by the quake, and more than 1.3 million remain homeless today. Thousands of people live in semi-sturdy “transitional” shelters, but there is still no new permanent housing to speak of. Tens of thousands of displaced people squatting on private land are in danger of eviction or have already been forced to move. Only a fraction of quake rubble has been cleared.
The government of President René Préval still has not made many of the most basic decisions, including where to build new housing, and whether and how it will exercise its powers of eminent domain.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, headed by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton, is supposed to bring coordination, efficiency and transparency to the rebuilding. It has met only three times and is still not fully staffed. At its most recent meeting on Oct. 6 — actually a conference call — the commission was still voting on changes to its bylaws.
It has approved some important projects, including a reinvention of Haiti’s primary education system and a $200 million program for agricultural development. Most recently it approved a 12-bed regional hospital, lending and training programs for small and medium-sized businesses, flooding prevention in the city of Jacmel, and efforts to protect women and girls from sexual violence. These need to be accompanied by significant progress in building housing and removing rubble.
Thanks to the immense foreign intervention, some things have improved this year, like many displaced Haitians’ access to clean water and medicine. That has undoubtedly helped prevent far wider sickness and death in the cholera outbreak. Unless the rebuilding begins in earnest, even that good news may prove transitory.