February 21, 2010

A Dispatch from Haiti

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As Director of the GHESKIO clinics in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I’d like to thank you all for the outpouring of support, sympathy and sacrifice on behalf of the people of Haiti as we continue to struggle in the wake of the powerfully destructive earthquake. As you have heard, the death toll is in excess of 200,000 and our small country is dealing with over 250,000 injured. Many of those are in need of continued care and are at serious risk of infections, and we are already seeing the early signs of a spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Over 400,000 homeless people occupy only a few square feet of space per person in our many refugee camp sites. Distribution of adequate food, clean water and medicine remains difficult and these basic necessities are not routinely reaching all of our people. Public health and sanitation are compromised which further encourages the spread of disease. Our strongest asset remains the will, cooperation and resilience of the Haitian people. We continue to rely on outside help and we shall continue to do so for many months and years as we recover and rebuild a Haitian infrastructure that is as resilient as our people.

I am writing this op-ed in response to those hundreds of you who have asked, “How can I help?” Many of you have already pledged your time and funds, and some of you are planning a trip here in the near future to personally be of assistance. As a Haitian and a Cornellian, and as a representative of the medical community and many non-governmental agencies, allow me to suggest a few ways in which you can help.

First of all, we need you to help us keep the disaster in Haiti and the plight of its people in the national and international public consciousness. Frankly speaking, the public’s attention span is far shorter than the time it will take to reestablish self-sufficiency in Haiti. The sooner the world loses interest in Haiti, the sooner the international aid will taper to a trickle. And Haiti is currently absolutely dependent on this aid. Discuss Haiti. Continue to search for news about Haiti and her people as the stories fade from the front pages. Use your Cornell research skills to go beyond the headlines, and use your Cornell communication skills to keep others informed as well.

Second, contribute what you can to your choice among the reputable aid organizations or charities that are making a difference here. In the month since the earthquake, these groups have learned about the primary needs and the most effective ways to collect, ship and distribute supplies. In recent weeks we have all experienced a steep learning curve for how international and local organizations can partner to most effectively provide for critical needs, and the experienced organizations are learning the ropes.

Third, Cornell is working to develop a number of giving opportunities for students, faculty and staff for those who want to help in a more specific way by supporting the entirely new needs that we have here in the GHESKIO clinics. Although we were able to return to our chartered mission of reaching out to HIV and TB patients within days of the earthquake, we now face damage to our facilities, our electrical power and clean water are at risk, our flow of supplies and medicine is irregular, and many of our dedicated and professional staff members are homeless — some are even sleeping in clinic vehicles. Furthermore, we now find ourselves partners in caring for over 6,000 refugees camped on the grounds of our downtown clinic. Within this camp we are providing for the sick and the well, the old and the young; we have births and we have deaths. We are dealing with crowd control and, of course, sanitation; and we fear an outbreak of infectious disease not only in the city, but within our own camp. If you are searching to address a specific need among the thousands of needs here in Haiti, and a need that has a very real Cornell connection, your financial support of the GHESKIO clinic system would be much appreciated.

Finally, many of you have passionately expressed your desire to come to Haiti to help. Under normal conditions we would welcome you with open arms, but realistically, conditions now, and for at least three to four more months, make such a visit inadvisable. We have even transferred some of our own people back to the United States. While I would never say we have enough help, the help we need must be coordinated with local and international agencies. It is not clear that all well-intentioned visitors could find a way to effectively contribute while here. It is clear, however, that every person in Haiti will be at risk to the developing severe public health hazards, and each visitor to some extent must consume food and water and space, and will need medical attention in case of illness or injury. The spirit of sacrifice, and to some degree the spirit of adventure, that causes one to undertake such a mission trip will be useful to Haiti in the future, and I will be among the first to encourage your goodwill as soon as that time comes. But until then, you can help us the best in the ways outlined earlier. Use the opportunities you have in Ithaca, or Geneva, or Manhattan or Qatar to learn the lessons of this disaster. Take Ezra Cornell’s words to heart and find instruction in any study and learn how we are all interconnected and interdependent. The lessons of this disaster can be discussed in any course, in any college, on any Cornell campus, and keep us in those discussions. We are truly all in this together, and we are desperately in need of your continued thoughts and support.

Dr. Jean William Pape is a professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College and is the Director of the GHESKIO clinics in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He can be contacted through the Press Relations Office at pressoffice@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Dr. Jean William Pape