Salvage the shreds of human dignity

by Robert Lorsbach

Early on the evening of Jan. 12, the small island nation of Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, whose epicenter was a mere 10 miles from the capital and major population center of Port-au-Prince.

Upon hearing this news and seeing the images, my thoughts immediately turned to my many friends in Haiti. I am a physician and have had the privilege of working for some five years now with the people of Layaye, Haiti, a small village in the Central Plateau region of the country, where thankfully no loss of life or significant damage was inflicted by the earthquake.

With every visit to Haiti, I have had experiences that give me profound hope for humanity and our world. I have repeatedly seen Haitians come together to overcome otherwise insurmountable difficulties in their lives: strangers working together to extricate a battered truck from a dirt road filled with mud and innumerable potholes; neighbors carrying an ill, elderly member of the community on a wooden door for miles over rugged, mountainous terrain so that she might receive desperately needed medical care.

A visit to Haiti sadly also affords a glimpse into the very worst that our world can be, particularly for the poor among us:

• A mother offering her newborn baby to me, a stranger, in the hope that I might be able to provide her child with a life of dignity that will otherwise forever elude them.

• Families so impoverished that seriously ill loved ones are left at the door of Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying because they barely have the resources to care for healthy family members, let alone those with illness or affliction.

Prior to last week, I would occasionally think to myself that things simply could not get worse for Haiti. Sadly, the events of Jan. 12 have now proven me wrong.

News commentators have asked whether Haiti is truly beyond hope. In light of Haiti’s long history of corrupt governance and seemingly unending misery, combined with the current catastrophic situation, I suppose this is, in a coldly analytical way, a valid question.

However, to pose such a question says as much about us as it does about the current situation in Haiti, since it subtly implies that we might actually be willing to consider doing nothing substantive to help the people of Haiti. Thankfully, the remarkable outpouring of money, support and compassion from around the world indicates that this is not the case.

While the aid that the United States and others have pledged will address the immediate and critical needs of the earthquake victims in Haiti — including food, water, sanitation and urgent medical needs — the long-term fate of Haiti is dependent on what is done in the coming months and years. Whether we are successful in helping Haiti will depend on the level of our commitment to ensuring that aid is applied in an accountable and transparent manner to long-neglected needs that have historically impeded Haitian economic and societal development.

Resources must be directed toward improving infrastructure, with construction of roads, schools, hospitals and government offices, provision of potable water and electricity, and water sanitation as top priorities.

Attention must also be paid to reforming Haitian labor laws, particularly those applying to minimum wages. In today’s world, no one can realistically hope to emerge from poverty earning $1 for a long day’s labor.

To truly help Haiti, the resources we have generously provided must be directed toward improving the lives of ordinary impoverished Haitians — and we must ensure that these funds are not consumed by “administrative expenses” or end up lining the pockets of the power elite in Haiti, as has occurred all too frequently in the past.

In Haiti, there is a Creole proverb, “Deye mon gen mon,” which translates as “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” Taking its cue from the topography of Haiti, a mountainous land, this proverb acknowledges the reality in Haiti that after one problem is solved, many other difficulties always remain.

The Haitian people are no strangers to adversity. As a result, they are, of necessity, industrious and innovative. If we are successful in working with the Haitian government and nongovernmental organizations to ensure the appropriate and accountable use of the aid that has been so generously donated, Haiti can more than simply survive this catastrophe.

It can reemerge from the rubble and destruction as a country where human dignity is no longer mocked by abject poverty and where the people have genuine hope for the future.

For the people of Haiti, including my friends in Port-au-Prince and Layaye, this would go a long way toward relieving the incomprehensible pain inflicted by this cruel earthquake.

Robert Lorsbach, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of hematopathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science. His home parish is Sacred Heart Church in Gardner.

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