Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quake Response: Boston organization fighting good fight in Haiti

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Good news from Haiti: the catastrophic earthquake that struck this Caribbean nation last week did no damage to the 10 Haitian-run hospitals and clinics aided by the Boston-based charity Partners in Health (PiH). Each of the 10, which offer free care to all comers — and were founded by Paul Farmer of Harvard's medical school, in conjunction with Haiti's health ministry — swung into action immediately after the quake struck.

Bad news from Haiti: those clinics and hospitals, which are staffed almost entirely by Haitians, are in the rugged rural interior of the country, hours — and in some cases days, on rough roads and mountain paths — of travel from the hard-hit capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Even worse news from Haiti: conditions in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere are so terrible, and medical help so scarce, that quake victims, some with grievous injuries requiring amputation, have no choice but to make the difficult overland journey to the PiH centers.

"It's been a horrifying catastrophe," says Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder, whose 2003 best-selling book Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House) introduced the world to the dauntless, tireless Farmer and his organization.

Many outlets offering relief and support to Haitians were headquartered in Port-au-Prince and were effectively decapitated by the January 12 quake, which struck just 16 miles west of the capital city and measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. But PiH, which employs more than 100 Haitian doctors and thousands of community health workers, is intact — its major hospital is in Cange, several hours northeast of Port-au-Prince.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, that hospital has expanded to make use of space in a neighboring church and a school. "There are patients all over the place," says Kidder of the reports he and PiH are getting from the clinics, adding that PIH is also striving to send medical workers to the urban-relief efforts even while handling the massive influx of new cases.

Kidder, who lives in Massachusetts and Maine, is adamant that Haiti needs not just relief money, but a societal change in which its people have more of a say in how the nation develops. He has argued that the international aid now pouring into one of the world's poorest countries be the start of a new chapter for Haiti, rather than just a temporary boon to assist with rescues.

Many people — worried about the looting and civil disorder in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake — are skeptical of giving aid and about Haiti's future, but Kidder asks, "how would New Yorkers, or any Americans, respond" in identical circumstances, with no food, shelter, water, and only the clothing on their backs — and with no certainty that loved ones were safe, or even alive?

The relief effort has also been hindered by the racism and religious intolerance of those like evangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the tragedy on a "pact with the devil." Kidder's response to Robertson? "If there's an Antichrist, then he might be it. You can quote me on that."

Kidder remains hopeful about Haiti's future, but only so long as international support is both generous and concerned about the long term. He recalls the Haitian proverb that inspired the title of his book on Farmer, PiH, and Haiti: "Beyond mountains there are mountains." Haitians use this proverb in two ways, he says: "There is no end to obstacles — but there is no end to opportunities."

To make a donation to Partners in Health, visit