Some Myths about Haiti are as Dangerous and Prevalent as COVID-19

Many who would deny prejudice or racism continue to apply centuries-old stereotypes to Haitians with seeming impunity or even self-awareness

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Canadian press reports have suggested that arriving Haitian air-travelers are COVID-19 carriers when the coronavirus infection rate is far higher in Montréal than in Haiti.

“Third flight from Haiti lands with many COVID-infected passengers” shrieked a Jan. 21 Toronto Sun headline.

COVID-infected flights from Haiti under scrutiny” cried a title the day before.

Yet another Sun story reported, “questions are still swirling about two flights from Haiti that landed in Montréal last week, apparently with so many COVID-19 infected passengers that Health Canada said all rows were potentially impacted.” A few days earlier Le Journal de Montréal bellowed: “Deux vols en provenance d’Haïti bourrés de cas de COVID” (Two flights from Haiti full of COVID cases) while CTV declared “Many COVID-infected passengers aboard three Haiti-to-Montreal flights, federal data shows.”

But the COVID-19 rate is far higher in Montréal than Port-au-Prince, so from a macro public health standpoint, it makes little sense to be particularly worried about Haitians infecting Canadians. In fact, Haitians should be concerned about Canadians traveling there. Ostensibly, the Sun and other media are focused on Haiti because Ottawa delayed by 15 days (Jan 6 to Jan 21) implementing a requirement for inbound travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test.

Haitians protest their classification as an HIV vector at the Federal Building in New York on Apr. 20, 1990. Photo: Richard Elkins/AP

While it’s difficult to parse out legitimate public health concerns from deeply entrenched anti-Haitianism, historically it is clear that Haitians have repeatedly been stigmatized as diseased. Most infamously, Haitians were labeled as the carriers of the AIDS virus (HIV) in the U.S. in the early 1980s. As a result, the country’s significant tourism industry basically collapsed overnight. Some Haitian exports were even blocked from entering the U.S.!

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labeled Haitians a high-risk group, concocting the infamous “4-H’s” designation of dangerous categories (Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Heroin addicts, and Haitians), unscientifically lumping a nationality in with medical classifications that had conditions or practices that made them vulnerable to AIDS. At the time, the Canadian Red Cross also publicly identified Haitians as a “high-risk” group for AIDS, the only nationality singled out. In 1983, they called on homosexuals and bisexuals with multiple partners, intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs, and recent immigrants from Haiti to voluntarily stop giving blood, another version of the “4-H’s.” But, again, the incidence of AIDS in New York or San Francisco was far greater than in Haiti in the early 1980s. By 1987, it was lower in Haiti than in the U.S. and other Caribbean nations.

Decades later the stigmatization remains. In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS,” and in 2016, former MP André Arthur claimed “Haiti is the country where AIDS started.” The Quebec City radio host added that the “hopeless,” “sexually deviant,” nation should be taken over by France as in the “heyday of colonial Haiti” (“belle époque de l’Haïti colonial”).

In another example of stigmatizing Haitians over disease, CDC incident manager for the Haiti cholera response Jordan W. Tappero blamed Haitian cultural norms for the 2010 cholera outbreak in that country. He told Associated Press journalist Jonathan Katz that Haitians don’t experience the “shame associated with open defecation.” This absurd fallacy was quickly exploded. Within weeks, it was revealed that Nepalese UN troops had introduced cholera into Haiti by following poor sanitation practices, dumping their feces into a river which people used for drinking, washing, and irrigation. More than 10,000 Haitians died, and hundreds of thousands were made ill as a result of the waterborne disease.

Impoverishment and weakness are part of what makes it possible to blame and stigmatize Haitians. But there is also a broader, deeply entrenched, anti-Haitian discourse.

Vodou, for instance, has been demonized for two centuries. In 1986 a CBC Journal reporter casually noted, “large numbers of Haitians are driven by wild stories and voodoo rituals and myths” while a 1994 Montreal Gazette article calling for “trusteeship” of Haiti claimed: “The true religion of the people is voodoo, with its fearful profusion of capricious spirits, the ‘loa,’ who always threaten to punish human beings who fail to placate them by sacrifices. Haiti is a society with little solidarity.”

Television evangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was punishment for a “deal made with Satan” in 1791.

But Vodou helped win Haitian independence, offering spiritual/ideological strength to those who rose up against their slave masters. At a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on Aug. 24, 1791, the slaves planned the revolt that swept the northern plain a week later and became the Haitian Revolution.

Some two centuries later evangelical Christians openly denigrated the Bois Caïman ceremony as demonic. After the deadly 2010 earthquake, influential U.S. pastor Pat Robertson claimed it was punishment for a “deal made with Satan” at Bois Caïman. He told his TV viewers that Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever … And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’” Robertson added, “you know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

The 1791 – 1804 Haitian revolution dealt a crushing blow to slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy globally. “Arguably”, notes Peter Hallward in Damning the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment, “there is no single event in the whole of modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global order of things.”

In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, thousands of illustrations, articles, and books denigrated Haiti, depicting the slaves as barbaric despite the fact that 350,000 Africans were killed, versus 75,000 Europeans, over 13 years. The reason was the fear of successful revolt instilled in the “white” slave-owning world.

There is a connection between the reaction to the Haitian Revolution and COVID-19 headlines in Canadian newspapers today. Anti-Haitian sentiment runs deep.

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