On Sunday, March 8, 2020, FINCA International’s marketing director, Bob Price, flew from Washington, DC to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Bob had originally planned to visit Haiti in November of 2019, but violent protests against the government had forced him to push the trip back. While the protests had ended, Bob now was flying out in the days just before the full reality of the coronavirus in Haiti (and United States) descended.
The purpose of the trip was to check in with local staff and clients on a suite of activities that FINCA Haiti had launched over the previous year: a new branch in Cabaret focused on agricultural lending, a “virtual branch” for the growing number of clients who were finding out about FINCA via the internet and social media, and the roll-out of a digital field automation (DFA) system that would relegate paper applications to the dustbins of history, reduce the cost of loan processing and allow credit officers to give clients real-time credit decisions.
The itinerary had Bob working his way up the country’s western coast – Monday in Cabaret, Tuesday in St. Marc and Wednesday in Gonaives with a quick trip inland to the tiny town of Savane Carree. On Thursday, he’d be back in Port-au-Prince to discuss takeaways with the local management team and to visit clients in the bustling market of Croix de Bouquets.
The Coronavirus in Haiti has Changed Things
More or less the trip happened as planned, but the rising threat of the coronavirus in Haiti changed the focus. When Bob purchased his ticket in mid-February COVID-19 seemed far away. It was devastating China but hadn’t traveled much beyond. There were fewer than a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S.
By the time Bob boarded the flight in Washington, DC on the morning of March 8, it was clear to many that things were going to get worse. But in consultation with FINCA management it was assumed that not much would change before he returned on March 13, a mere five days later.
That turned out not to be the case. Italy went on lockdown on March 9. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic and the first U.S. travel restriction went into effect. President Trump declared a national emergency the day of his return. And Haiti began closing its borders just two days AFTER he returned.
What all that meant for the trip was that COVID-19 coloured all conversations. It also made it abundantly evident – quickly and forcefully – just how vulnerable Haitians were going to be when COVID-19 arrived. Haiti isn’t ready for the coronavirus.
Why COVID-19 in Haiti Could be Devastating
Haitians almost uniformly live in close quarters, have minimal access to health care, little or no savings or other form or financial security, and rely on daily face-to-face interactions for their livelihood (market selling, light manufacturing, food stalls). They are paid and pay for pretty much everything with cash.
Given their reality, it is impossible to imagine that the basic precautions being recommended in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world – social distancing and closing down non-essential services – could be feasible in Haiti or any of the other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or Central America where FINCA works.
The first morning of visits included an hour-long conversation with the Cabaret branch manager and a credit officer who is pilot testing the DFA system. They discussed and demonstrated how the technology would change FINCA’s business and improve client’s experience in working with FINCA. There is no doubt that the benefits are huge. As just one example, most credit officers spend as much as an hour or two each morning putting together the paperwork that they will need for the day. When all the information is on a tablet, she can be out the door in minutes.
But the technology doesn’t circumvent the need to visit clients to assess their business. After leaving the office, Bob and the credit officer went to the town’s market to meet a client. The journey had them weaving their way down a street cheek-to-jowl with pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, vans and buses.
The market itself was even more crowded. With vendors’ goods spilling out of their stalls, the main corridor was perhaps three feet wide. Getting to Charité Marcelin’s little shop required pushing past people nearly constantly. There was no way that Charité could run her business and also practice social distancing or basic hygiene. While the conversation with Charité didn’t turn to COVID-19 specifically – on March 9 the virus was the leading news story but it wasn’t yet the only news story, her response to one question was perhaps prophetic. Asked what happens if she couldn’t work, Charité said she wouldn’t survive long. “I spend each day’s profit as fast as it comes in.”
By that evening the stories coming out of the U.S. was of panic buying, grocery shelves depleted of meat, flour and toilet paper. COVID-19 was becoming much more real. Could something similar happen to Charité and her customers? If the U.S. could see shortages, what would happen in Haiti?
Limiting Community Spread of COVID-19 in Haiti will Hurt
On the morning of Wednesday, March 11, Bob’s first visit was to a school in Gonaives run by Kerlande Toussaint and her husband Annesse Aristild. The school educates some 600 children from pre-school through middle school, one of the larger FINCA-funded “businesses” in Haiti.
Annesse explained to Bob that FINCA loans have helped them build the school over the years. While Annesse might be able to get loans from a commercial bank, he and Kerlande “stick with FINCA out of loyalty.” They also love the new technology that FINCA is rolling out.
But no technology that FINCA provides can address the fact that schools in Haiti absolutely require physical presence. Kerlande had noted to Bob that the school’s only computers are used by her and the other administrators. If it was necessary to close the school to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Haiti, there would be no distance learning taking place during the shutdown. And just eight days after Bob’s visit the government of Haiti issued just such a school closure decree.
The government’s decision to close schools was certainly the right move. Hundreds of children and adults milling about reasonably cramped schools like that run by Kerlande and Annesse would be an ideal location for virus the spread. But the school closure would have devastating effects on the students’ education as well as on the financial situation of the teachers and of Kerlande and Annesse. And with no public support for the school, it is certainly possible that the school itself would not survive.
Haitians Need Our Help
As the United Nations and the World Health Organization have noted, low-income countries like Haiti are poorly prepared for COVID-19. Haiti, for example, has fewer than six ventilators per million people a rate that is 30 times smaller than the U.S. (a still insufficient 180 per million people). The numbers of doctors, nurses and hospital beds is similarly woefully inadequate for what could be a huge demand for medical care in the coming weeks and months.
Whether there is still time to bolster Haiti’s health care system before the pandemic hits with its full force is an open question. But if the health care response doesn’t respond to the demand, Haiti will face the possibility of debilitating social instability.
It is clear that the time for action is now. And once the pandemic has ended and even while it rages, it will be incumbent on FINCA and entities like it to be there to help rebuild ravaged lives and economies.
This chapter is just the beginning of Haiti’s coronavirus story. If we don’t act, the stories to come could be less pleasant to read.