When the novel coronavirus first appeared in Haiti authorities and humanitarian experts panicked, worried about the country’s decrepit health system — but the pandemic’s economic consequences could prove yet deadlier for the nation’s poor.
With just eight official virus fatalities as of Saturday, the COVID-19 pandemic is still in its infancy in Haiti, where staying at home and social distancing are unattainable luxuries for many who make their living in the informal economy.
In an attempt to stem the spread of the virus the government of Haiti — the poorest country in the Americas — announced that wearing a mask would be compulsory in all public places beginning May 11.
Masks aside, for many Haitians the main question remains: Die of hunger today or coronavirus tomorrow?
On the hilltops east of Port-au-Prince, in the Petionville suburb, merchants took a stand for the latter option, protesting in the streets against a rule limiting their commercial activities to three days a week — a town hall directive mainly issued in vain.
Consumer panic that followed the March 19 announcement that COVID-19 had arrived on Haitian shores has subsided, and customers are now making more measured purchases, particularly considering their often limited means.
Cereals constitute two-thirds of the daily caloric intake of the average poor Haitians. However the price of one such staple — rice — has more than doubled in some markets compared with 2019.
Inflation has accelerated since March, and the sharp rise in prices linked to the coronavirus pandemic will only worsen a recession which began about 1.5 years ago.
“With the looming crisis, we expect a decline of almost four percent,” of gross domestic product, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe said during an annual finance summit held online this year.
– Risk of famine –
Half of all Haitian jobs are in agriculture, even though the sector accounts for only 21 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Haitian economist Etzer Emile.
Poor workers who own tiny farms watch their incomes melt away in the lean season between harvests, making preparations for the next harvest ever more difficult, especially in certain regions already threatened by drought.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic crippled the global economy, the United Nations warned that 40 percent of Haitians would need emergency humanitarian assistance in 2020.
The estimate projected that starting in March nearly three million Haitians would be facing “severe food insecurity,” a UN classification just below famine.
Haiti’s diaspora has long kept the country from plunging into even deeper poverty by sending money home: More than $3 billion is transferred back to Haiti each year by those living abroad, totaling about a third of the nation’s GDP, official figures show.
“Haitians depend on remittances for food, education and even funerals,” Haitian economist Kesner Pharel said.
However the diaspora, mainly based in the United States, is now facing a wave of massive unemployment sweeping the world’s largest economy.
Haiti’s Ministry of Economy and Finance predicts that the financial aid will drop by almost a quarter in the coming months.
“We like to say that when the American economy suffers from the flu, Haiti suffers from pneumonia: The millions of jobs lost in the United States will cause worsening extreme poverty for sure,” Pharel said.
Image: AFP/File / HECTOR RETAMAL It’s hard to maintain ‘social distance’ in Haiti’s tightly-packed working class neighborhoods like Jalousie, in Petionville, Port-au-Prince