COVID Infections Decline Sharply in South America; but Earthquake-torn Haiti Grapples with Rising Risks 
A young man stands outside a row of buildings destroyed by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Haiti followed by a storm surge from Tropical Depression Grace

COVID cases across most countries of South America are now declining,  after months in which the region was the epicenter of the pandemic. 

But in the seesawing trends that the pandemic continues to see, infections are rising again throughout central and North America – as well as the Caribbean – where earthquake torn Haiti faces special risks. 

Haiti has only vaccinated about 21,000 people – after receiving its first shipment of COVID vaccines only last month, said PAHO’s assistant director, Jarbas Barbosa, speaking at a PAHO press briefing: “We are working with the ministry of health to expedite the process, despite all the challenges that Haiti is facing,” he said.

Risks of COVID transmission are rising as thousands of displaced people in Haiti’s southwestern pennisula crowd shelters or seek refuge with extended family members. Two dozen health facilities in the area have been damaged and are struggling to regain services in the hardest hit provinces of Grand’Anse, Nippes and Sud, the PAHO officials said at a Wednesday press briefing. Those factors, combined with already poor COVID testing capacity, will make case reporting and tracking even more difficult in the wake of the natural disaster.   Over 1.5 million people, including 540,000 children have been impacted by the earthquake, according to UNICEF.

On a brighter note, in Brazil, hospital occupancy has dropped by an average of 80% across all states for the first time since November, said Dr Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization, which is responsible for WHO’s Americas Region, at the briefing.

But at the same time, COVID infections are now rising across Mexico and the United States, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant.   

 “In Mexico, more than two thirds of states have been deemed at “high” or “critical” risk as hospitals fill with COVID patients,” she said.

Cases and deaths also are rising in Central America, including countries such as in Costa Rica, where vaccine drives have been fairly successful.  Likewise, infections and deaths are increasing across the Caribbean, including in Cuba. Dominica, Guadalupe, Jamaica, Martinique, and Puerto Rico, where cases rose by 49% and deaths increased by 70%. In Trinidad and Tobago, weekly deaths continued to rise, said PAHO officials.

Appeal for aid to earthquake-struck Haiti

Epicentre of 2021 Haiti earthquake

Meanwhile, groups ranging from USAID to the European Union were rushing aid to Haiti, where at least 1,300 people have been killed by the 7.2 magnitude quake that struck early Saturday morning.  Another 5,700 people have been injured, said Médecins Sans Frontières, which said that a complete mapping of the disaster in remote areas remained challenging.

“Many patients are outside or in tents, not to mention all the Haitians who have lost their homes, said Michael Olivier Lacharité, MSF head of emergencies.  Heavy rains from tropical storm Grace and landslides damaging access roads were further challenging relief workers – who were resorting to helicopter and sea travel when feasible.

WHO Appeals to International Community for Aid

People search through the rubble of what used to be the Manguier Hotel after the earthquake in Les Cayes. Haiti, 14 August, 2021.

Etienne called on the international community to meet the country’s “immense” need for medical aid, including health workers, medicines, equipment and transport vehicles. 

“What we need is health personnel, supplies and equipment to treat patients with trauma, injuries, acute illnesses, chronic diseases and mental issues,” she said at a Wednesday briefing. “There is an urgent need to restore health services mainly in the most affected areas and to ensure adequate water and sanitation to prevent increases of diarrheal, respiratory, and skin diseases.”

“Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, and rest assured that we are doing everything possible to assist Haitians in these difficult and hard times,” added Etienne, paying special homage to PAHO public health emergencies specialist, Dr. Ousmane Touré, who perished in the earthquake. 

‘Moment in history of extreme fragility’

Her comments were echoed in Geneva by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noting that on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, observed Thursday August 19, world was facing unparalleled challenges from health and humanitarian response efforts in corners of the world as diverse as Haiti and Afghanistan – compounded by the overarching challenges of the COVID pandemic.

“I can honestly say that I have never seen so many emergencies happening simultaneously. This moment in history is one of extreme fragility,” Tedros said.

The Haiti earthquake was the latest in a series of natural and political disasters to have struck the island nation, also one of the poorest in the world.  The earthquake hit along the same fault lines that triggered another 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 killing as many as 300,000 people in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince.  

While this time the capital city escaped relatively unscathed, the tremor’s epicenter in remote rural regions also made relief and rescue operations more difficult. And it was a particularly traumatic blow for people who had relocated to the penninsula just a decade ago in order to get away from earthquake risks – only to find themselves homeless once again, the New Humanitarian noted

Image Credits: UNICEF/Georges Harry Rouzier, US Geological Survey/Google Maps, Médecins sans Frontières.

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