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A Transdisciplinary Approach to Pandemics: How a Haitian Community Responds to COVID19

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Human encroachment into more environments exposes humanity to novel diseases. Such was the case when the SARS-Cov-2 virus crossed the species barrier from bat to humans. The Coronavirus is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected millions, killed over a hundred thousand, closed borders, revealed weakness in preparedness and response, and significantly slowed industry, transportation, and other fossil-fuel dependent enterprises. As an unprecedented number of humans stayed away from school and work, factories became idle, streets became empty, air got cleaner, and wildlife reclaimed many environments. Everyone is affected by COVID-19, including the Interdisciplinary Environmental Association, who had to postpone their 26th International Interdisciplinary Conference on the Environment originally scheduled for June 2020 in Mexico City. IEA plans to reschedule IICE in Mexico City in June 2021, where there will be a special session dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic. This special session will facilitate discussions about environmental responses to the pandemic, so that lessons learned can be applied to society's post-pandemic activities.

The importance of timely, accurate information was made clear. Misinformation was deadly. On April 16, 2020, months into the pandemic, the following Coronavirus guidelines were shared on Facebook:

  • Basically, you can't leave the house for any reason, but if you have to, then you can.

  • Masks are useless, but maybe you have to wear one, it can save you, it is useless, but maybe it is mandatory as well.

  • You should not go to hospitals unless you have to go there. Same applies to doctors, you should only go there in case of emergency, provided you are not too sick.

  • This virus is deadly but still not too scary, except that sometimes it actually leads to a global disaster.

  • Gloves won't help, but they can still help.

  • The virus has no effect on children except those it affects.

  • You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms.

  • If you are sick, you can't go out, but you can go to the pharmacy.

  • You are safe if you maintain the appropriate social distance, but you can’t go out with friends or strangers at a safe social distance.

  • The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, no, four, no, six, no, we didn't say hours, maybe days? But it takes a damp environment. Oh no, not necessarily.

  • The virus stays in the air - well no, or yes, maybe, especially in a closed room, in one hour a sick person can infect ten, so if it falls, all our children were already infected at school before it was closed. But remember, if you stay at the recommended social distance, however in certain circumstances you should maintain a greater distance, which, studies show, the virus can travel further, maybe.

  • We count the number of deaths but we don't know how many people are infected as we have only tested so far those who were "almost dead" to find out if that's what they will die of…

  • We have no treatment, except that there may be one that apparently is not dangerous unless you take too much (which is the case with all medications).

  • I'll add, Coronavirus dies when exposed to a basic environment, so people should drink solutions of baking soda, which has a high pH. People should also drink lime or other citrus juice, which has a low pH.

The contradictions of these statements elicit humor, but they also caused great confusion for people dealing with a new disease. If this level of confusion and contradiction existed months into the pandemic, imagine the difficulty of getting life-saving information to a place like Haiti, which had her first confirmed case on March 19. Little Coronavirus information was available in Haitian Kreyol, a language spoken only by Haitians and a few outsiders. One published estimate, which is likely a worst-case scenario, stated that 700,000 Haitians could die in a country with a population of 11 million. Lack of information, high population densities, poor testing (fewer than 1000), lack of medical care (fewer than 100 ventilators and ICU beds in the entire country), and lack of PPE will all present challenges for facing Coronavirus in Haiti.

I arrived in Haiti on March 18, 2020, two days before the borders were closed. I was concerned about spreading the Coronavirus when I was travelling, so I took every precaution available to avoid contact with the virus on planes and immediately went into a strict 14-day quarantine upon arriving in Haiti. I have remained free of symptoms. I am the founder of the nonprofit, Yon Sel Lanmou in Haiti, where I apply the transdisciplinary approach and HAMSTER (STEM plus Humanities, Arts, and Recreation; discipline to my work in Decolonization and Applied Ecology. However, my regular work in Haiti has taken a backseat to the immediate public health needs. My first efforts in applying a transdisciplinary approach to an epidemic happened during the cholera epidemic of 2010, when UN soldiers inadvertently introduced cholera to Haiti because of poor screening and improper human waste management. Haitian rappers and Yon Sel Lanmou produced a music video PSA that Haitians credit with saving lives.

When I finished self-quarantine, I reunited with Joewolf Nerath to record a rap PSA about COVID-19. The song can be heard by clicking on the photo below. A music video to the rap will follow when videographer Josimara Juste completes its production. When social distancing prevents teaching about Coronavirus in the classroom, the internet, radio, and television are great ways to reach people, even when they are isolating themselves. Both of the PSAs share information about hand washing, but even this simple, effective tool is challenging, as most homes in Haiti, including mine, do not have plumbing. I purchased a 50-gallon drum, spigot, bleach, and a cache of soap to set up a hand washing station for my immediate community, and hired a local boy to fill the drum as water is depleted. I wrote, with the help of a translator, printed, and posted informational signage around Vilaj Mozayik, and gave extra copies to be posted elsewhere. I also purchased a small supply of masks and meds to treat the sick. These days I only travel into the nearby town of Hinche where there is internet available to serve my distance-learning students at CU Denver. Vilaj Mozayik does not have a case of COVID-19 yet. I hope to have more positive news to share in the future.

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