Doctors targeted and hospitals close amid gang violence in Haiti

By Hanan Redwan Published on May 31, 2022
Doctors targeted and hospitals close amid gang violence in Haiti

Gang violence in Port-au-Prince is disrupting healthcare and leaving medical workers vulnerable to the deteriorating safety situation in the Haitian capital, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned.

Four hospitals in Port-au-Prince were closed on 22 May after staff walked out in solidarity with colleagues who had been kidnapped by armed gangs. The medical personnel are demanding guarantees that they will not be caught up in the wars of drug gangs vying for control of territory in the capital.

The kidnapping on 17 May of Jacques Pierre Pierre, medical director at the Haitian State University Hospital, prompted the strike, but it is only one in a spate of recent abductions of Haitian healthcare workers. Benetty Augustin, a paediatrician and specialist in epilepsy, was kidnapped while she was on her way to work on 5 May.

Samson Frandy, medical manager at MSF’s emergency centre in Turgeau, a neighbourhood in south west Port-au-Prince, said, “We are concerned about the unacceptable situation of insecurity affecting our colleagues in Haiti’s medical community. The effects on the already weak health system are enormous, and this situation is putting a pressure on our centre which is hard to bear.”

Healthcare workers at the St Luc and St Damien hospitals also walked out following Augustin’s kidnapping, leaving the clinics out of operation for almost two weeks. The two hospitals treat around 12 000 and 80 000 patients a year, respectively, and St Luc has one of the few computerised tomography scanners in the country.1

Haiti has been plagued by gang violence and political instability for years but the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse in 2021 caused a power vacuum which was quickly filled with violence as the country lurched further towards becoming a failed state.2

MSF doctors say they often work amid the sounds of gunfire and are forced to turn away patients, including children, because of a lack of hospital capacity. The number of trauma patients admitted to MSF’s clinics in mid-May—mostly from gunshot wounds—was three times higher than a month earlier.3 Barricades erected by gangs have prevented ambulances from reaching patients.

Haiti’s healthcare system is underinvested, understaffed, and under-equipped, even in more ordinary times. The Caribbean nation spends $13 per capita a year on healthcare—well below the average for low income countries.4

As people lose access to major public hospitals they are increasingly turning to MSF’s emergency centres, which are not equipped for the specialist attention required by patients. Many are turning to the Turgeau clinic but the centre was established to stabilise the lives of people in a critical situation, such as road accidents or gunfire, not for specialist care. Doctors there had to prepare an additional floor to accommodate the influx of patients on 20 May—mostly children who had been turned away elsewhere in the capital.

MSF is concerned that hospital closures are limiting healthcare access but says it supports healthcare workers protesting increasingly dangerous working conditions.

“We support the decision of our colleagues to suspend their services and we express our deepest solidarity with them,” Frandy said. “If healthcare professionals continue to be attacked and targeted, Haiti’s health system may no longer be able to cope with the needs of its people.”

Gangs continued to fire on one another in the capital on 26 May, local media reported.5 As well as patients who are unable to find necessary treatment, doctors say they fear for their own mental health and that of their colleagues.

Mackenley Isidore, medical supervisor at the Turgeau emergency centre, said, “We all worry about our situation, which is unstable as insecurity gets worse. We are scared, especially when we leave our homes to go to work and when we return. The biggest concern is kidnapping, especially when we’re on the street. When we see patients being wheeled in, we ask ourselves, ‘Is it someone I know? Is it a relative?’ Here, insecurity is serious, anyone can be a victim.”

Hanan Redwan

Hanan Redwan

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