On January 12, 2010, Haiti was dealt yet another devastating blow in its long history of hardships. A 7.0 earthquake hit the country, toppling countless homes, businesses, and government buildings and killing over a quarter of a million people; many of the casualties came from in and around Port-au-Prince. Another 300,000+ people were left homeless, many of them suffering from severe physical and psychological wounds. Many government officials, professionals, and students — including the students and most of the staff at the nursing school — were crushed to death when the buildings collapsed. In the months that followed, large camps made of tents and other makeshift shelters sprung up and survivors were vulnerable to sexual assaults and a widespread cholera epidemic.
Paul Farmer, a doctor with Partners in Health and UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, looks back on the earthquake and its impact on Haitians over the following year. Farmer has worked extensively for many years trying to improve health care and the medical infrastructure in Haiti; after the earthquake, he has worked closely with President Clinton to help organize aid and the rebuilding process. As such, most of the book is told from a political/health care perspective. Farmer acknowledges his various forms of privilege up front, asserting that the book is told from the perspective of a Partners in Health physician and not as one of the primary victims of the earthquake; he tries to balance his perspective by including essays by other people in the second part of the book.
The end result is a somewhat uneven narrative. Some of my problems with the book undoubtedly stem from its time constraints; the earthquake happened in January 2010, and the book was published in July 2011. Parts of it are repetitive, while other parts start to feel too off-topic. For instance, Farmer also works in Rwanda. He uses some of the highly successful rebuilding efforts following the Rwanda genocide to show some of possibilities for Haiti. It’s an interesting comparison that raises sobering statistics — people in Rwandan refugee camps lived in tents (similar to the tent camps in Haiti) for about a decade following the genocide. It took that long to get people back on their feet, and people in Haiti are likely facing a similar time frame. However, at times Farmer went too much into those details and could have left some of it out.
My favorite part of the book was definitely the last part, which featured perspectives from people more directly affected by the earthquake. Edwidge Danticat, who lost some relatives in the quake, wrote a lovely essay about the reaction of the Haitian immigrant community in Miami’s Little Haiti; one woman at her church had lost twenty-five family members. A recurring sentiment in this section of the book is the resilience of Haitians, but Danticat is cautious:
I began to ask myself if this much-admired resilience would not in the end hurt the affected Haitians. It would not be an active hurt, like the pounding rain and menacing winds from the hurricane season, the brutal rapes of women and girls in many of the camps, or the deaths from cholera. Instead, it would be a passive hurt, as in a lack of urgency or neglect. “If being resilient means that we’re able to suffer much more than other people, it’s really not a compliment,” a young woman at the large Champs de Mars camp in downtown Port-au-Prince told me.
It is with this in mind that another major theme of the book springs from: building back better. So many people died needlessly because of problems that were already well-established in Haiti before the earthquake. Most of the buildings were not built by professionals, the public health care and education systems were notoriously underfunded, and the government infrastructure was weak. Now that much of Haiti must be rebuilt, everyone agrees that it needs to be done correctly and with the input of Haitians from all walks of life, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised.
Haiti: After the Earthquake was published in July 2011 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books Group.