PORT-AU-PRINCE – Jean Maitre, a used shoe salesman and father of seven who was left jobless just over a month ago when the Haitian government introduced a series of restrictions to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, now finds himself and his family threatened by hunger.
One of dozens of street vendors who until recently had hawked their wares at the market in Carrefour Trois Mains, near Port-au-Prince’s international airport, the 53-year-old said he fears the strict social-distancing measures will affect his food security and very existence.
“To eat, we have to be together. If you have nothing, the person next to you gives you (food),” said this resident of the country’s largest slum, Canaan, a district he says is deprived of government assistance and where large numbers of people live in abject poverty.
A part of the roughly 40 percent of Haiti’s population that suffers from food insecurity, according to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Maitre has seen his food and economic resources become depleted and is now forced to seek sustenance on the streets.
Haiti’s government issued a decree barring all non-essential economic activities on March 15, prior to the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case. In tandem, it also launched a food-distribution campaign to mitigate hunger in this impoverished Caribbean country.
During the first few weeks of confinement, people ignored social-distancing guidelines and formed long lines in different parts of Port-au-Prince to receive those food packages.
The governmental entity responsible for distributing the aid, the Economic and Social Assistance Fund, sought to rectify that situation by delivering kits door to door, as EFE has observed in Port-au-Prince’s Delmas district.
Authorities also have supplied food to community restaurants in various communes (municipalities) of the capital’s metropolitan area so low-income residents have access to daily hot meals.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti warned on April 14 that the coronavirus mitigation measures were likely to further increase the prevalence of food insecurity in the country.
Although the crisis response is currently focused on the health sector, the socio-economic impact is expected to be devastating.
“It’s probable that the food crisis will deteriorate along with the spread of Covid-19, which could affect the success of the spring agricultural season,” the FAO’s representative in Haiti, Jose Luis Fernandez, said in a recent statement.
Haiti has suffered galloping inflation since last year, steady currency depreciation, a socio-political crisis that paralyzed the country for more than two months at the end of 2019 and a significant deterioration of public-safety conditions.
The coronavirus response has caused the destruction of thousands of jobs nationwide, while thousands of Haitians living abroad in the Dominican Republic and the United States have been left unemployed for the same reason.
The struggles of Haitian expats could lead to a reduction in remittances, which account for a whopping 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“It’s clear that the challenge for the food system in this context is a big one, considering the multiple actors and variables involved,” Fernandez said.
Separately, the non-governmental organization Mercy Corps warned in a press release Monday that it has detected limits on people obtaining seeds and other agricultural inputs in markets and challenges transporting and getting food and hygiene products at affordable costs in urban markets due to the coronavirus prevention measures.
“Halting agricultural production in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus could increase hunger through June and may prove more deadly than the virus itself,” Mercy Corps’ Haiti country director, Justin Colvard, said in a statement.
Haiti’s pressing economic needs prompted the government to allow textile plants to reopen at the start of this week.
Meanwhile, the slow rise in the number of infections is encouraging.
The first case in Haiti was confirmed in mid-March, and thus far official figures indicate a total of just 57 coronavirus infections and three Covid-19-related deaths, although there also have been 618 other suspicious cases.