January 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 250,000 people and left over one million homeless, I moved to Port-au-Prince to help with relief efforts. As a recent graduate of a public health master’s degree programme, and a person of Haitian descent, I thought my expertise and linguistic skills could be of use to the survivors.
The situation was already grave when I arrived there. Amid endemic poverty, political instability and almost no remaining infrastructure, the people of Haiti were struggling to rebuild their lives. But it got significantly worse a few months later, when a silent killer emerged on the scene: cholera.
The cholera epidemic, which broke out near a base housing United Nations peacekeepers, killed over 10,000 people and affected more than 800,000 others. It also contributed to the contamination of the island’s main water source, the Artibonite River, further crippling relief efforts.
The 2010 outbreak, which was the first large-scale cholera outbreak in the 21st century, brought death and disruption on an unprecedented scale. But it did not shock many in the Global North. After all, what happened in Haiti was in line with their understanding of epidemics – deadly outbreaks of ancient diseases that affect foreign people in exotic, faraway and (made-to-be) poor lands. They were saddened by the news coming from the Caribbean island, and some even donated money and supplies to try and help, but most did not see the outbreak as a wake-up call to review the readiness of their own countries, and the global community, for a similar epidemic or pandemic.
Fast forward 10 years, and we are in the midst of a pandemic that is devastating not only the Global South, but also countries in Europe, North America and Australia – countries that had come to believe that, for them, epidemics are a thing of history. Of course, these countries faced a deadly HIV/AIDS pandemic as recently as the 1990s, but most of their citizens viewed that disease also as something that overwhelmingly affects “others”, namely homosexual men, minority communities and people from developing countries.
Since being identified in China as a new and dangerous member of the coronavirus family in early January, COVID-19 has spread to more than 100 countries worldwide, including Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. As a highly infectious respiratory disease, it poses a threat to everyone in every society. On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and the list of affected countries continues to grow rapidly. The Global North is now facing an epidemic that is affecting not only its internal and external “others”, but all of its own citizens indiscriminately.
The pandemic’s death toll has already reached 6,500, and it has inflicted a massive blow to the global economy. The countries that are used to watching epidemics from afar are now scrambling to contain the virus before it causes more devastation to their citizens.