Why New Jersey should care about Haiti

haiti.jpg Three years after Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake, hundreds of thousands of homeless people are still at risk from crime, disease and the elements in crowded makeshift camps. THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

By James P. Morgan

The three-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake has just passed, and Haiti still matters.

Our Caribbean neighbor, the second-oldest republic in the Americas, continues to struggle with poverty, disease and an infrastructure still damaged from one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history — one that killed nearly 300,000 people.

But what I fear most for Haiti is that the world will turn the other way — that our own disaster fatigue and skepticism about Haiti will cause indifference. People should know that the world’s response to Haiti immediately after the earthquake saved thousands of lives and continues to improve the country today.

I first visited Haiti in 2001, and I could not forget the images I saw, such as a barefoot toddler playing with a milk carton on a garbage dump. I vowed to return and in 2004 helped co-found Lamp for Haiti, a community and health care center in Cité Soleil, a dangerous and poor slum in Port-au-Prince.

I have been traveling to Haiti for the past 10 years. Immediately after the disaster, I saw the international response at work.

Doctors and nurses saved the lives of people with lost or crushed limbs and severe trauma. The world brought much-needed antibiotics, food and fresh water.

Roads and hospitals were reopened. Devastated communities were rebuilt. A new medical school to teach future Haitian doctors and nurses has been created, a collaboration of the Haiti’s Ministry of Health and the Boston-based humanitarian organization, Partners in Health.

The world response saved lives and also prevented widespread epidemics of typhoid and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Today, we know that hundreds of thousands of people still live in crowded tent encampments. Safe water remains a problem. Yes, the recovery is expensive and slow, but some perspective is needed.

Hurricane Katrina recovery cost $140 billion. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 is estimated to cost $300 billion. New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are looking to receive more than $60 billion in federal aid from Hurricane Sandy damage.

Haiti, already one of the world’s poorest countries, received about $7.5 billion to recover from its massive earthquake.

So why should we continue to care when recovery seems overwhelming? For one, Haiti, a nation of more than 9 million people, is just a three-hour plane ride from the New York metropolitan area. A massive exodus of Haitians leaving the country to seek refuge in the United States would be detrimental to both nations.

We know that bacteria and illness respect no international borders, and so bolstering institutions in Haiti, like the Ministry of Health, helps not only that country, but ours, as well.

Yet in the end, we ought to acknowledge the strongest reason: the moral imperative of helping our neighbor — a nation with a tragic history and long ties with the United States.

We can make a difference. We see that every day at Lamp for Haiti, where we employ Haitian doctors and nurses who are paid decent wages. We work in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and see 200 to 300 patients each week, providing them with quality free primary and urgent care.

I can recall a father with tuberculosis who thanked us for saving his life, a teenage girl with a sexually transmitted disease who knew she would be treated with respect and with the right medication, an elderly crippled man who used a stick for a cane. He was able to get treatment and leave his home for the first time in years.

Sometimes, physicians in New Jersey will offer me their expired medications. I decline. Our aim is for the people in Cité Soleil to be treated with the same standards of care as my patients in New Jersey.

I don’t believe the naysayers who tell me that things in Haiti will never improve, or that whatever resources sent to Haiti are squandered. Positive work is being done.

It needs to speed up, but we cannot give into frustration.

We must stay involved as individuals and as a nation. That is good for Haiti and good for us.

James P. Morgan is co-founder and medical director of Lamp for Haiti (lampforhaiti.org). He is an internal medicine physician in Cedar Grove.


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