“Respect for the United Nations in Haiti was ‘forever destroyed’ by the Cholera epidemic that ravaged the impoverished country after the 2010 earthquake.” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban-ki-Moon
United Nations Security Council has recently in October 2023, approved the deployment of the Kenyan peacekeeping force in Haiti to combat violent gangs in the country as Haiti’s security services have not been able to combat them. This deployment of an international force draws us back to a painful memory which all Haitians share, the one which impacted lives of several people across the Caribbean Island.
20 October 2010, remains a dreadful date in Haiti’s history as the first outbreak of Cholera was confirmed, and it could not have come at a worser time as Haiti was impacted by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake just 10 months ago which killed 2,00,000 people. Former UN Secretary General, Ban-ki-Moon, admitted that the UN should have done more to mitigate the Cholera outbreak which was allegedly linked to poor sanitation practices by UN peacekeepers in Haiti. Cholera spread rapidly through the island nation killing thousands and devastating a health care infrastructure which was still ravaging from the aftershocks of the earthquake.
This blog will focus on how basic things like lack of good sanitation practices could impact the lives of so many people and we will also be discussing how the UN’s reputation was unfortunately impacted for years to come.
Cholera: A deadly disease
“After a natural disaster, safe drinking water is a priority. Humans can live longer without food than water, so communication about clean water is essential to help avoid the risk of Cholera, dysentery, malnutrition, famine, and death.” – Tae Yoo, American Businesswoman
Cholera is a bacterial disease generally spread through contaminated water and it causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and can cause death if left untreated. Good sanitation practices have eliminated Cholera in major developed countries. However, developing countries with poor sanitation are still impacted by this disease.
Why Cholera spread in Haiti?
"Part of the reason we think the outbreak grew so quickly was the Haitian population had no immunity to Cholera. Something like when the Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, and it burned through the native populations." – Daniele Lantagne, an environmental engineer at Tufts University
The devastating earthquake which hit the Caribbean nation in 2010 resulted in the UN offering its peacekeepers to the country for rebuilding. Many foreign nationals were operating in Haiti. Reports indicate that the first case appeared near a UN camp for peacekeeping forces in the central highlands and the disease took over the nation with devastating ferocity as within just 2 days of the first case. A new Cholera patient was being admitted every 3.5 minutes to a hospital 60 miles away. Source info here. Cholera before this incident had not appeared in the country for a century. However, after this event, it was here with devastating consequences.
The sequence of incidents was simply that the camp of the UN peacekeepers, a few of them who were carriers of the disease, did not follow proper sanitation facilities and as a result, the Meille river near the camp got contaminated. The river was a primary source of water for many people and the water may have been consumed without proper treatment resulting in the spread of the disease.
How was the UN’s reputation impacted in Haiti?
"We don't want any occupiers here, particularly when they are contaminating the Haitian people with Cholera." - Jose Merilien, organizer of an anti UN protest in Haiti
The Cholera outbreak was so damaging as over 8,20,000 cases were recorded in 2010 causing over 10,000 deaths. Former UN Secretary General, Ban-ki-Moon stated that this incident eroded the UN’s reputation in the country. As the UN was being blamed for being the tragedy, people’s faith in the organization was impacted. Source info here.
The United Nations as an organization runs many peacekeeping operations across the world, and if the UN gets blamed rightly or wrongly for one of the deadliest tragedies in modern history, other member nations may not be that open to let UN operate on their soil considering such histories. Further, the UN was also sued by the families of the victims for compensation, however, the UN claimed immunity from prosecution.
Lessons for businesses across the world
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford, American Businessman
This tragic event in Haiti is a learning for all as to how responsible we either as an organization head or business owner need to be while conducting our operations. The following steps can be taken to prevent an undesirable event and its negative consequences:
Understanding the context of operation like whenever an organization plans to set up business in a particular area, it is critical to ensure that the local area of operation is examined. Organization must be aware of the consequences of things like the consequence of releasing waste in a nearby water source, or pollution of the nearby air, pollution of the environment or society.
Any actions by the business which can impact the local population should be examined thoroughly before implementing them as they can be detrimental to business continuity, and the organization’s reputation could be severely damaged, impacting future business opportunities in the region.
Finally, it is important to show compassion in case of tragedy due to the business, to assure the people that you are a responsible and empathetic organization. organizations must be open to compensate in case their activities cause harm to the local environment or local population.
This unfortunate incident in Haiti teaches us that it is critically important to be responsible in all aspects of business while operating in any country. The event in Haiti shows how a simple negligence caused a catastrophe in the country, spoiling not only the UN’s reputation but also the years of work which the UN had put for Haiti.
Just imagine yourself as a business owner being blamed for a tragedy in the host country due to your business. How would you handle that? It is critically important to understand responsibility and act accordingly for not only ensuring your reputation but overall business continuity.
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