Chris reads the Economist religiously. Every Thursday night he downloads the latest copy and then hunkers down and pours over it for the next few days, taking it all in. He has this amazing mind for details and facts, all the overwhelming and important things that most of us don’t feel like we have the time or headspace for on an average day.
Back in January, after reading the latest release, he started talking about Coronavirus, this thing that was spreading through China, and how the world needed to pay attention, because it could become something. Something big. I smiled and nodded and we left it at that.
A week or so later news started breaking more widely that it was spreading around the globe. We had some hard conversations that involved me trying to remind him of the stats and him realizing it was stressing him out. During payroll around the end of February we talked with our staff about this spreading illness, and that we all needed to be aware of it and the fact that it may come to Haiti. We talked about things we could be doing to help prevent it – hand washing, coughing into our arms, etc. One of the guys said, “It won’t come here if you believe in Jesus.” We had to inform him that a virus doesn’t care what you believe in, and that Jesus would still be with us in sickness.
We kept going as usual and watched COVID-19 spread through Europe. Then cases started in the US. Haiti put measures in place to be screening people as they arrived, starting back in mid-February. I applaud the government for that because it was ahead of most nations on that front.
A couple of weeks ago we had another meeting with our staff to talk about the fact that it was definitely going to come to Haiti and we needed to be prepared. We all kept doing life as usual but started making slight changes, like not holding hands when we did morning prayer. Haitians are very social, so this felt strange, but we adjusted.
Cases started to spread in the US and Canada. We had a visitor here at the time, and we made the decision together that she should probably head back to the US before borders closed. She flew out the afternoon that Haiti’s President announced that the borders would be closed at midnight and that flights would no longer be able to land in either of Haiti’s airports.
We talked with family back home to check in on them and see how they were doing with the now imposed “shelter in place” advisories. We kept talking with staff about government mandates here in Haiti, and how that could affect our work. We talked about potential issues with foreign organizations just because people won’t have enough knowledge to know how this is affecting the whole world, and will want someone to blame. Foreigners are the natural place to point fingers, even though recent months have seen few flying in, and many have left, because of the unrest for the past year. The bulk of people traveling in and out of Haiti are Haitians.
Last week, we collectively made the decision to continue working with safety measures in place. Our prayer circle got a lot bigger in the mornings as everyone worked to keep 6 feet between them and the next person. Some of the guys started arriving wearing their own masks, and I went to work making masks for everyone else. We stopped sending the delivery truck out after the government said no transport truck can have more than 2 people on it. Staff wanted to continue doing filter follow up visits, but had to wear masks and gloves while out. During their visits they distributed flyers with infographics about Coronavirus that showed preventative steps, and what symptoms to watch for. People were very grateful to get this info, many saying that they thought it was a joke or rumor.
We watched Haiti’s cases go from 1, to 2, to 5, to 8. This weekend cases were confirmed at 15. The Dominican Republic, which shares this little island with us, has almost 900 confirmed cases. We can’t help but wonder how accurate Haiti’s numbers are. We suspect there are many more cases here, but because of lack of testing facilities and resources people either aren’t getting tested, or won’t get tested. We’ve heard that some places are reporting threats to those that test positive for COVID-19, so it would be a major deterrent for anyone getting tested. Haitians are also constantly dealing with respiratory illnesses at this time of the year from various colds, flues and dust, as well as a long list of maladies that are fever based. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that many have COVID-19, but wouldn’t even know it or know the symptoms to be different from other things they’re used to seeing. And, there’s a different acceptance of death here, sadly.
Last year was hard and discouraging. In the midst of rising political unrest we had the accident with the truck that left 6 of our guys injured, and a woman lost her life. We were down a vehicle and have been for the past year. One of the guys is still recovering after needing long-term care.
Last fall we spent about 4 months at home, only leaving a handful of times because of the political unrest. During the first few weeks we kept thinking that something would shift, because it wasn’t sustainable for the country to keep going that way. No fuel, roads closed, schools closed, people not able to move around, etc. When we reached 6 weeks we realized that we didn’t know what to expect, and shifted into a mindset where we couldn’t plan anything with any amount of certainty. We had plan A, B, C, and sometimes D. Our staff were amazing and kept pushing, but we could see that everyone was weary and struggling for so many reasons.
One thing that I can honestly appreciate about what we went through last year is that we got used to being home and isolated. Many of our expat friends left the country, and we couldn’t go places, so we got used to being at home. One day when supplies were getting through I made a trip into St. Marc to go grocery shopping and bumped into friends at the store. It had been about a month and a half since I’d seen other people outside of our staff and community. I almost cried, and felt ridiculous for it. But, it felt so good to see people.
We got used to having to think about all possible sides, to buy supplies when the opportunity was there, and to lay low when needed. We valued each day that we could be working. We valued each day that was safe enough for anyone to be out doing work in a normal way, or to travel to do things that had been put off, whether that was getting fuel, or being able to get to Port au Prince to run errands.
By the time Christmas rolled around, and things were open enough for us to leave for a few weeks of vacation in the US with family, we were tired. It wasn’t that we were physically drained, it was weariness and being drained emotionally. You see, that waiting and watching takes its toll.
And here we are again. And I already feel weary. This life has brought so much in the years that we’ve been here, and I just feel weary right now.
We’re watching things happening around the world, and have been watching for weeks. We’re worrying about family and friends back home as we see cases daily increase. And we’re waiting and watching to see what will happen here in Haiti.
In a place like Haiti social distancing isn’t an option. People live day to day, whether it’s working to earn enough money to feed their families, or going to the market to buy that day’s allotment of food. People don’t have electricity to have refrigeration, so they can’t stock up and stay home. Kids have literally lost an entire year of school between the political unrest and now COVID-19. The government is trying to educate the population, to enforce things like putting space between people on tap taps and other public transit, but we know that’s futile because as soon as the machine is out of sight from the police they’ll be loading up again.
It feels futile, but we’re trying to set an example by putting measures in place at work to keep everyone safe, but we all know that they’re coming in contact with any number of people through their day and time at home. They’re traveling on public transit, and their family members are out doing life as well. Most of our staff are taking things seriously, but there’s an element of knowing that we can all only do so much.
I feel weary in the waiting and watching. We have no idea what to expect when COVID-19 really starts moving here. Actually, I think we DO know what to expect, but we’re praying that there will be some sort of miracle that will happen here. The truth is, people live in very close quarters, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Haiti has over 11 million people living here, and I’ve heard there are only about 50-70 ventilators in the whole country. Families are used to knowing they won’t get the care they might need, and seeing a government that is always looking to see what kind of advantage can be found in a situation versus trying to do the right thing. I think most people will resign themselves to the fact that people will die, and there won’t be a thing they can do about it.
It’s so hard to sit in that place of waiting and watching. It’s emotionally exhausting. But, I can find things to be grateful for in this season.
Our years here in Haiti have taught us to dig in for the long-term, and I’m grateful for that knowing what is to come over the next weeks and months. Here in Haiti we’re used to working on a different time table. Things always take more time than you think they will. We don’t always like it (ha!), but it is what it is. I never would have thought we could stay home for weeks, let alone months, but last fall showed us that we could. And that we didn’t suffer. As we look at the progressing pandemic, we’re not thinking weeks for this thing to move through Haiti, we’re thinking months. We’re planning with that mindset. It’s hard, but we know that’s the way we need to go now.
I know too, that it’s much easier to plan for the harder way, than it is to expect it to be easier. If we plan and think long-term, willing to dig in and hunker down for months if need be, then we’re prepared and wrapping our hearts and minds around that. If we expect it to be anything less, we will struggle and fight more, and deal with more disappointment and be more distracted, than if we take a long-term view.
We know how to be flexible, and when we need to release things too. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, we just know that it needs to be done. We normally plan our annual vacation for the summer. We’ve already been talking to our kids about the reality that it might not happen on that time line either because borders will still be closed, or it might not be safe to travel at that point. If that’s the case, we’ll just bump it back to a point where it is a good time to take it. We started homeschooling it the first part of last year, and it’s been a huge blessing for us because it meant we could continue with the kids school all last fall when all other schools were closed down. Again, this is a think of stability for us, and thankfully I listened to my gut and ordered the last bits of our school books to a friend’s airmail address rather than planning to bring them back during our vacation. They arrived at our house on the weekend and I let out a sigh of relief. If we can’t leave, we can continue on with school and our kids don’t lose anything, and it helps us have some routine and stability when everything else feels uncertain. Our kids actually ask if we’re doing school every day because they rely on that routine, and we’re so thankful for that.
Most of all I think our years here have taught us that we’re much more resilient than we think we are. We can get through more than we think we can. We can feel deeper, process more, grieve deeply and still come out the other side. It may be hard, but we know we’ll be okay. Yes, we worry about our staff, about our mental and emotional health, and about our kids and their hearts, but we try to leave those things in God’s hands and trust that he’s walking with us, carrying us when needed.
So yes, I feel weary right now. But, I am not without hope and peace. This season is going to be a hard one, there is no doubt. There will be loss and pain, grief, anger… all the things. I pray that through it we’ll still be able to keep hope and find joy in things too. To appreciate the small things in our days, to remember how fortunate we are to have each other. I pray that we’ll learn through this and choose to do some things differently when all is said and done. All in all I hope it makes us better people.