As an infectious disease doctor working in Haiti for over 40 years, I have wrestled with countless tragedies. I have battled problems like H.I.V., tuberculosis, Covid-19, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. Each time, our community of health care providers, police officers, humanitarian workers, government officials and citizens have pulled together and come up with a solution to steer Haitians to safety.
Today is different.
We now have around 200 gangs, armed with military-grade weapons, rampaging through our neighborhoods, killing, kidnapping and raping our citizens. Civilian casualties are at wartime levels. Volker Türk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, recently called our situation “a living hell”.
We do not have a government. Our president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated almost two years ago, and not a single elected official remains in office. The army is poorly trained and equipped. Our police force of 9,000 is powerless, its members having become targets of gruesome gang violence or recruitment efforts. Some Haitians, desperate for change, are turning to retaliatory vigilante attacks against the armed groups. Left unchecked, the escalating violence could push us into a civil war, and it has fallen to doctors, lawyers, business owners, farmers, students — all of our 11 million citizens — to find a solution.
Over the past several months, it has become clear to me that we can’t do it alone. Haitians cannot overcome this crisis — the worst I have seen in my life — without foreign intervention.
I never thought that I would plead for the world to send in soldiers. I’m a doctor, not a politician or military tactician. We have a tragic record of foreign intervention in Haiti. In our history as an independent nation, Western powers made us pay a very high price for our freedom, resulting in systemic misery and poverty. But today I cannot see another solution.
I was born in Haiti and returned to practice medicine after completing my training at Weill Cornell Medical College more than four decades ago. In the early 1980s, I diagnosed some of the world’s first cases of H.I.V. Shortly after that, I founded the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (GHESKIO) with a group of other Haitian health professionals, before H.I.V. even had a name. Since then, our institution has been on the front lines of patient care in Haiti.
We have always had to work through periods of political instability, coups and natural disasters. The earthquake of 2010 destroyed most of our clinic buildings and turned our downtown center into a vast refugee camp. But with the support of the local community and international partners, we put up tents, set up a field hospital and provided trauma care for thousands of patients. Not once did we shut our doors or pause delivery of care for a day.
Now we are facing the possibility of closing. Over the past several weeks, we have been forced to halt our programs for days at a time to secure the release of kidnapped medical staff members. About one-third of our workers have fled the country in the past year to protect themselves and their families. The entire medical system is on the brink of collapse. Local hospitals’ emergency services are inundated as they scramble to treat a rising number of gunshot victims. Many of our health care partners with deeply committed teams, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, have suspended operations or ceased services entirely after attacks on aid workers and patients alike.
The gangs have burned houses and buildings, displacing at least 160,000 people. Gang control over major ports and roads has forced thousands of businesses and markets to close, ruining our economy and leaving half the population with limited access to food and facing the possibility of famine-like conditions. Many children can no longer attend school, and some of them are at risk of being killed by gangs or starvation. Cholera has resurged as a direct result of gang control of our nation’s fuel terminals, which has left public services like garbage collection debilitated, sometimes for weeks.
We do not see a solution to our crisis without foreign intervention. We need experienced international forces to support and train our national police force and provide security as we work toward rebuilding our government. International investment in social programs is critical to provide young adults at risk of gang recruitment with sustainable employment alternatives. It is also essential for the Biden administration to stop the illegal export of weapons from the United States to Haitian gangs — the principal source of the guns in Haiti. And we need the commitment of the world to help us get back on our feet to carry on with our health and humanitarian efforts.
Without this outside assistance, many more people will die. We are pleading for immediate action from the international community to help us. We cannot let Haiti burn in silence. Time is running out.
Dr. Jean W. Pape is the founder and executive director of Les Centres GHESKIO in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. In 2021 he was named a member of the World Health Organization’s Science Council.