Haiti and Covid-19 – Analysis and Solutions

Photos of event speakers and Haitian president Jovenel Moïse

On August 4, 2020, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted “Haiti and Covid-19 – Analysis and Solutions,” a webinar in partnership with Université Quisqueya to discuss their newly launched book, “Haiti et le Covid 19. Des outils pour comprendre et agir.” The panel featured Fritz Jean, Georges Sassine, Mirlande Manigat, and Georges Fauriol. Dan Erikson, senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, moderated the event. This webinar served as the first of several events convened jointly by the Dialogue and Quisqueya as part of their cooperative initiative, “Think Tank Haiti.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, gave brief remarks and introduced the opening speaker, Jacky Lumarque, rector of Université Quisqueya. Lumarque introduced the “Think Tank Haiti” initiative, stating that among those who study Western hemispheric affairs, Latin America is often prioritized over the Caribbean and even then, Haiti is often overlooked. This collaboration between Quisqueya and the Dialogue seeks to adapt data and analysis to the local context in order to facilitate public action to integrate broad reforms. In Haiti, the pandemic exacerbated an electoral and constitutional crisis that has delegitimized the current government, making it more important than ever to leverage the skills and expertise of the Haitian diaspora and international partners.

Mirlande Manigat, author of the chapter “A strange moment. A window of opportunity?” discussed the pandemic’s effect on Haitian society. She described how the first several weeks were characterized by cultural misunderstandings about which groups of people Covid-19 could affect, though it soon became apparent that the virus did not discriminate. She drew a comparison between the current, smaller crisis brought upon by the virus and the larger, longer-lasting socioeconomic crisis that has affected the country for decades. Government actions to curb the impact of Covid-19 were enacted “by impulse, not reason,” demonstrating a lack of state capacity to enforce its policies. Manigat declared that the government will not be able to address these deficits through legal reform if it is not accompanied by the political will to tackle systemic issues, reduce corruption, and pay more attention to the poorest members of society.

“The world may never be the same after Covid-19.” Fritz Jean addressed the role of Haiti in the global economy in his chapter “A new world order is taking shape after Covid-19: what are the prospects for Haiti?” in which he discussed the paradigm shift that leading economists are contemplating in the wake of the pandemic. Many countries have discovered weaknesses in their supply chains and are considering restructuring, which begs the question of where Haiti fits into the picture. With high inflation and a suboptimal exchange rate, in addition to institutional deficits such as bad governance and corruption, Jean described how Haiti’s trajectory has led to the current “maneuvering of a failed state.” In order to break these trends, Jean urged Haiti to work closely with CARICOM and other regional organizations to stabilize its role within and benefit from shifting supply chains. At the national level, civil society organizations can serve as a watchdog for the government, while members of the diaspora and the international community also play essential roles in Haiti’s development and growth.

Georges Sassine covered the impact of the pandemic on Haiti’s manufacturing sector, specifically focusing on the textile industry, in his chapter “The Haitian clothing industry in the face of Covid-19 – a contribution to a sectoral public policy.” Haiti’s garment sector exports primarily to the United States and represents 90 percent of Haiti’s exports. In March and April, the sector lost thousands of jobs, but THE Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH) made a decision to employ those who lost their jobs in making face masks and other PPE, facilitating direct cash transfers to those workers along with the government. Though exports and revenue took a hit, Sassine declared that this pivot demonstrates the resilience of Haiti’s industries, and urged the American government to reaffirm the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) to boost Haiti’s manufacturing sector and foster US-Haitian collaboration.

Georges Fauriol, author of the chapter “Covid-19 and US-Haiti relations: facing reality,” focused on US policy toward Haiti before the pandemic and in the near future. The US government has been preoccupied with domestic challenges, coupled with the short-term attention span of politicians operating with a mindset geared toward the election cycle, and Haiti faces competition from other countries in terms of requesting aid from the United States. The pandemic has also impacted the Haitian diaspora in the United States, affecting the level of remittances flowing back to Haiti. Fauriol echoed Sassine’s sentiment about extending the CBTPA, and also discussed the potential jeopardy facing the temporary protected status of many Haitians in the United States, which falls into the broader immigration debate dominating US political discourse. The weak state of the Haitian judicial system exacerbated by the pandemic complicates the ability of the United States to engage meaningfully with Haiti, heightening the need for regional and multilateral cooperation.

The speakers’ remarks were followed by a Q&A period with the audience. The audience asked questions regarding the potential for collaboration with the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, the involvement of multilateral development banks, and the social safety net in Haiti. In response, panelists emphasized the importance of coupling constitutional reforms with improvements in education and public health to attract investment and protect the most vulnerable members of society, while cooperating with the United States and the international community to prevent a food shortage and direct resources effectively and efficiently.

Watch the recording of this event here

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