Don’t Blame the UN for Cholera in Haiti

Anti-UN riots spread across Haiti yesterday. According to a reliable Twitter feeds, there were gunshots throughout then night in Cap Hatien and burning tires lining some streets this morning. So why the anti-UN sentiment?  It would seem that many Haitians are blaming MINUSTAH soldiers for brining the Cholera that has killed nearly 1,000 people according to the latest government estimates.

Many Haitians blame a Nepalese contingent for the disease.  On November 1, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control affirmed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matches a strain found in south-east Asia, which only seemed to confirm suspicions that the UN was to blame.  The UN has not investigated that specific claim, and neither are they likely to do so.   If there were a definitive link between UN peacekeepers and cholera, it would be politically difficult for the Haitian government to maintain its support for UN peacekeepers, which the Haitian government relies on to provide some security and also to train a police force that was decimated by the earthquake.  (And from an American perspective, an exit of peacekeepers would be deeply problematic. Keep in mind that the American military was three times in the last 15 years compelled to send troops to Haiti to do the kinds of things that UN peacekeepers are doing today.)

So, naturally, there is a great deal of sensitivity over this claim that peacekeepers are responsible for Cholera.  Even so, I think this claim mis-identifies the real culprit behind the Cholera epidemic: poverty and poor sanitation.  Regardless of where this disease came from, the reason that it is so easily spreadable in Haiti is because of the terrible conditions in which millions of people live.  It can be fairly easily treated if the symptoms are recognized in time. And it can also be contained if people have easy access to clean water and sanitation — which the UN and international partners are working to achieve.

It is hard to identify a single villain when poor living conditions are to blame. But the fact is, cholera became epidemic because of the combustible combination of a weak government, poverty, crowded and unsanitary living conditions — all made worse by the earthquake and then, Hurricane Tomas.

UPDATE:  David Bosco suggests that I am actively discouraging an investigation into the sources of the cholera outbreak. Not so!  My intention is to merely describe the political contingencies that might suggest why an investigation is potentially politically perilous. I’m not advocating for anything.