By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA: Walking door to door through the crowded streets of a slum neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haitian community leader Reynald Jean is on the front line of efforts to bust entrenched and lethal myths about the coronavirus.
One is that hospital patients are being given a deadly injection to increase the number of COVID-19 deaths so that the government can attract more international aid.
Another myth is that hospitals are testing a vaccine for the coronavirus on patients without their knowledge.
“In the community, people think of COVID-19 as a political matter,” said Jean, 45, who heads a local youth group.
Some Haitians say COVID-19 is not real. They point to the low official death toll, which has been linked to a lack of testing in Haiti’s underresourced and underfunded hospitals.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas with 11 million people, has recorded about 7,300 coronavirus infections and 160 deaths. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of at least 1,000 people and infected 64,000.
“We know there are many people who have ailments such as fever, flu. They stay at home, taking care of themselves with traditional medicine,” said Jean, a father of four.
He and his small team give COVID-19 information leaflets to people on their doorsteps and to street and market sellers.
Sometimes they also hand out soap and chlorine tablets and place buckets of water next to street vendors for handwashing.
They have also helped to build a communal handwashing station at one neighborhood pitch where children play sports.
With two thirds of Haitians living in poverty and many homes without running water, hand washing and mask wearing are a luxury. Jean and his team also drive two trucks with loudspeakers to promote COVID-19 prevention messages.
“Wash your hands. Wear your masks. Practice social distancing,” are messages that reverberate through the densely populated streets lined with grey brick shacks.
As Haiti’s coronavirus lockdown has ended and churches have reopened, the challenge now is ensuring people understand that the danger has not gone away.
“We’re telling people: “The coronavirus is still here. It is imperative to continue to respect prevention measures,” Jean told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hundreds of other community leaders, head teachers and health workers trained by medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) are using similar methods to help bust coronavirus myths.
“We listen to peoples’ fears and worries and try to understand where their fear is coming (from),” said Sandra Lamarque, MSF’s head of mission in Haiti.
“We ask, have you personally witnessed someone getting this deadly injection, or is this something you heard from someone who heard it from someone?”
Yet debunking myths about the pandemic spread on social media and by word of mouth is hard to do. The World Health Organization has described the spread of coronavirus misinformation as an “infodemic”.
In Haiti, coronavirus myths have eroded trust in healthcare systems and are hampering the work of doctors, said Lamarque.
“We’ve had a few cases where the patient or their caretaker would refuse that we give any type of injection to the patient,” she said.
Fear and stigma about the coronavirus largely due to misinformation can have fatal consequences as some Haitians are reluctant to seek care at hospitals, Lamarque said.
“This meant they would come very late (to hospital), and as a consequence they would arrive in a critical state. It was very difficult for us to take care of the patients and save their lives,” she said.
Twelve of the 132 patients admitted to MSF’s COVID-19 clinic in the Drouillard neighborhood of Port-au-Prince between mid-May and mid-June died on arrival or within the first 24 hours, Lamarque said
False rumours about COVID-19 injections have also had a knock-on effect on other routine vaccinations, Lamarque said.
Vaccination rates among children and newborn babies in public hospitals across Haiti were 50% lower in May than they were last year, she said.
“This is extremely worrying because we may have a gap in vaccination and … we really risk having another outbreak in the country – measles, diphtheria,” said Lamarque.
“This potentially is a time bomb.”
Fears about the coronavirus fuelled by misinformation have also led to more pregnant women choosing to give birth at home.
There has been a 75% decline in the number of women giving birth in public hospitals across Haiti in May this year compared with the same month last year, Lamarque said.
“We know this could have an impact on maternal mortality deaths,” she said.
Sid Vilnor, a 49-year-old driver in Port-au-Prince, did not think he had the coronavirus when he fell sick in May.
“At first, I didn’t believe I had COVID-19 because I hadn’t been in contact with people from abroad, so I didn’t think I could catch it,” Vilnor said.
For nearly a month, Vilnor tried to treat his persistent fever with traditional medicine using oak leaves, lilac flowers and aloe vera.
But after coughing up blood and not being able to walk, he sought care at an MSF clinic in mid-June.
While Vilnor was there, he said several friends called him to say he should not accept any injections.
“In my neighborhood, there are many people who complain of having a fever. They say they would rather die at home than go to the hospital because they are convinced that they will be injected with a deadly vaccine,” Vilnor said.
“If I hadn’t come then, I would probably have died.”