COVID has hit the Caribbean and Latin America hard. But Haiti is feeling the brunt

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Millions of Haitians have less income today than when the COVID-19 pandemic began, a new study by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program has found.

Nearly 45% of households in Haiti have lost income, with women — especially mothers with small children — young workers and those with lower levels of education hit particularly hard, the study said.

“A year after the start of the pandemic, women are twice as likely as men to stop working. This has been accompanied by an increase in domestic responsibilities, in particular the supervision of children’s educational activities,” noted UNDP and the World Bank.

The snapshot on Haiti is part of a larger look at the pandemic’s impact across Latin America and the Caribbean in key areas such as labor markets, income, food security, gender equality and access to basic services like education, COVID-19 vaccines and internet connectivity. The report noted that Caribbean countries such as Haiti, Jamaica, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guyana and Belize face particularly worrisome levels of food insecurity.

“For some countries, a visible recovery with respect to the outlook in mid-2020 is observed: Bolivia, Guatemala, and Honduras have displayed the most significant declines in the incidence of food insecurity,” the report said. “On the other hand, the situation in Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador remains worrisome yet stable, with households facing similar levels of food insecurity as they did at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.”

Across the region employment is at around 62%, but the recovery has still fallen short of pre-pandemic levels. In Haiti, where the unemployment rate has always been a matter of debate due to the country’s expansive informal sector, the study said it rose from 41% before the pandemic to 52% in June.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the pre-existing inequalities in the region, where the most vulnerable and poorest groups have been disproportionately affected,” said Luis Felipe López-Calva, UNDP regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report noted that 7% of Haitians with formal jobs before the pandemic now have informal jobs. They also found that, as in Haiti, the quality of available jobs across the region declined, with individuals working fewer hours per week.

“The number of working hours slightly decreased during the pandemic, an alarming aspect if we take into account that Haiti was the country with the lowest number of working hours per week (33 hours per week) and which negatively impacts household income,” the report said.

Experts had feared that with its weak health system and past struggles with infectious diseases, Haiti would be hit with a significant wave of coronavirus infections and deaths. But that has not been the case, even with what is widely recognized as an under-reporting of infections and deaths. As of Dec. 4, the most recent available data, the country had registered 25,691 infections and 754 deaths, giving it one of the lowest death rates in the hemisphere.

Still, Haitians have not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. The last country in the region to receive COVID-19 vaccines, Haiti has a vaccine hesitancy rate of about 60 percent, according to the study, and a vaccination rate of less than 1%.

Nearly a year since the first doses of a COVID vaccine began rolling out, the virus remains worrisome not just in Haiti but throughout the region, where the new omicron variant has already been detected in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and the United States. The Pan American Health Organization warned this week that countries have to continue leveraging the full package of public health measures to protect their population against the deadly virus and people have to get vaccinated when it’s their turn.

To date, 55% of the people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID, according to PAHO. Still, there are too many people who remain unvaccinated, with 20 countries in the region yet to reach the World Health Organization’s year-end 40% vaccination target. Among those that are far behind: Guatemala, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Haiti.

As Haiti lags with vaccination, the study also found that Haitians were among those who received the least economic support during the pandemic. Less than 4% of Haitian households have received economic aid from the government, compared to nearly 80% in Ecuador, and less than 10% of school-age children have the means to take lessons virtually.

Haiti has been hit by multiple shocks since 2019. They include natural disasters, a persistent political and socioeconomic crisis, gang-related violence and the Haitian-Dominican migration crisis. The challenges have only worsened since the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, which was followed five weeks later by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Haiti’s southern peninsula.

Haiti’s government recently presented the results of its post-disaster needs assessment on the quake, whose effects it estimates to be $1.6 billion in terms of damage and losses. The figure represents nearly 11% of the country’s gross domestic product for 2019-2020. The costs of reconstruction and economic recovery are estimated at around $2 billion.

On Tuesday, UNICEF, citing the various crises and gang violence that continue to hamper the humanitarian response in the quake-affected region and has forced the displacement of more than 19,000 Haitians, issued an urgent appeal for $97 million. The money is to scale up assistance to 950,000 people, including 520,000 children next year, the U.N. agency said.

“All along this year, Haitian women and children have fallen from one crisis to the next. They have experienced long-lasting trauma from kidnappings, displacements, earthquake and expulsions,” said UNICEF Haiti Representative Bruno Maes. “They have been put under pressure for too long. Their resilience capacities have been stretched to the limit and they need support to overcome these crises and recover.”

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