Article By Noel Stevens | Photos By Jahlil Rush | Feb. 9, 2021
When Haiti shut down in March of last year, experts were worried about how the response would be managed in a country already faced with widespread health and infrastructure challenges. The government had to respond, but a burden was also placed on the many nonprofits and humanitarian aid organizations operating in Haiti.
Many of these organizations shut down along with much of the country, but a New York-based nonprofit called Capracare responded to the pandemic by putting together kits of personal protective equipment and handmade hand sanitizer and distributing them door to door.
“Many of the other organizations during that time were not as prepared,” said Capracare founder Jean Pierre-Louis, speaking from his Brooklyn office. “Our clinics never completely shut down; we made adjustments.”
Pierre-Louis was born in Haiti and moved to New York City at the age of nine. He found himself drawn back to his home country as he got older. Bleak American press coverage of the island and taunts from his elementary classmates, especially in reference to the stereotypes that developed in the ’90s of Haitians spreading HIV, inspired him to create the organization. In 2009, the Brooklyn resident founded Capracare. His mission was to promote access to healthcare in Haiti.
As COVID-19 spread early this year, Capracare was in a unique position to help. Its decade of experience working in health in Haiti, and its founder’s roots there, meant it had the necessary connections and resources to hit the ground running.
Pierre-Louis believes it is necessary to invest in the communities his organization serves, maintaining healthcare facilities and infrastructure on the island. Many organizations focused on humanitarian work do not make long-term commitments to the places where they operate, something Pierre-Louis opposes.
“Our mission is not to do aid work, our mission is to do development work,” said Pierre-Louis.
Capracare’s doctors and nurses on the ground in Haiti began pushing the importance of hand-washing and other early strategies for avoiding the coronavirus months before it was clear how dire the pandemic would become.
“We are an organization that has a big component on prevention education,” said Pierre-Louis. The organization’s Twitter also emphasizes the healthcare programs they are aiming to create and maintain in Haiti.
Haiti confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 on March 19; the country’s first death came on April 5. In a country of over 11 million people, there have been only 246 COVID-related deaths so far this year, according to data from February 7.
Haiti is considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, yet they were able to curb the rise in cases as early as June. This is due in part to the government’s swift and uniform response, but Capracare and other community-driven organizations had an impact as well.
The U.S. humanitarian relationship with Haiti has spanned decades. According to the U.S. Embassy for Haiti, the U.S, has invested a total of $6.7 billion in the last 20 years. Success has varied.
Those involved in the world of humanitarian aid often point to organizations like Capracare as an example of why a one-size-fits-all approach will not work effectively. It has been argued that organizations with more connections to their respective communities will be more effective than those that parachute into situations and then leave. Sometimes clerical problems arise from a lack of transparency. Other mistakes are more devastating.
The ongoing cholera endemic in Haiti, for example, has killed at least 9,000 people and was traced to United Nations peacekeepers who were deployed following the 2010 earthquake. Despite once being a powerful force in the Caribbean, Haiti has struggled to build itself back up amid both internal struggles and outside interference.
Herold Dasque is a Haitian immigrant and the director of community relations for Haitian Americans United for Progress, a non-profit community resource center operating across several boroughs in New York City. He considers himself opposed to the Republican party but was unwilling to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. He cited the Clinton family’s involvement in the U.S.’s post-earthquake humanitarian efforts as the reason.
“No one knows whatever happened to 9 million dollars that was raised to rebuild the country,” said Dasque.
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed approximately 250,000 people and prompted fundraising efforts from nations all around the world, then-President Obama tasked former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton with overseeing U.S. fundraising efforts, and Clinton was named as the United Nations’ special envoy to Haiti. The Clinton Foundation alone claims to have raised $16.4 million of immediate aid for the earthquake. Where all this money went is unclear.
Millions of dollars and two years later in 2012, Clinton stood in front of a new industrial park in Haiti and praised its opening as an example of what the U.S. has done for the island nation.
Clinton viewed the project as an economic boon, saying “I know a couple places in America that would commit mayhem to get 20,000 jobs today.”
Caracal, Haiti, where the park is located, was completely unaffected by the earthquake.
“A lot of the funds that was raised during the earthquake was raised to help Haiti’s infrastructure, and we felt like the transparency of how that money was spent didn’t do justice for what it was put forward for,” said Pierre-Louis.
Pierre-Louis is focused on long-term goals, avoiding strategies that leave communities to fend for themselves.
“There is no exit plan,” Pierre-Louis said.
As the pandemic enters its second year, Capracare shows no sign of slowing down. Instead, they’ve expanded their hygiene education program and started teaching communities how to make their own hand sanitizer.
Capracare has also started offering their old services on top of COVID-19 services. Their clinics have opened to continue screening women for cervical cancer, and they have restarted their health education program in primary schools. They have even been able to launch a mental health initiative in partnership with St. John’s University and Johnson and Johnson.