Victims of Haiti’s raging cholera epidemic got a glimmer of good news recently when a class-action lawsuit seeking recompense from the United Nations for its role in spreading the disease finally got a hearing in a New York courtroom. The three judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit panel asked tough questions of both sides — the US government is representing the United Nations — and fortunately seemed determined to focus less on diplomatic protocol and more on the hard reality outside the courtroom walls.
And it’s a hard reality, indeed. New evidence collected by Doctors Without Borders suggests that deaths from the epidemic that devastated Haiti after the 2010 earthquake could be much higher than the 9,200 toll recorded so far. The study, in the March edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, found that the surveillance systems in place at the onset of the epidemic weren’t adequate to provide “accurate and timely information.” In four communities, the study found, house-to-house surveys recorded nearly three times more cholera deaths in the first months after the outbreak began. That’s troubling news for a fragile country.
The lawsuit was brought by advocates because most scientists believe that a UN peacekeeping force brought the disease with them when they arrived to help the country rebuild after the quake. The often-fatal scourge is still burning through the population; some 770,000 Haitians have been sickened since late 2010.
The United Nations, citing immunity to claims of damage, has stonewalled and never acknowledged responsibility. There are reassuring signs that the international community is shaking off its torpor on the issue; at a meeting of the Security Council last month, New Zealand called on the United Nations to support those afflicted and to ensure that Haiti’s new government is not left alone with the consequences. Malaysia urged the UN secretariat to work with victims on possible compensation. According to Richard Knox of NPR, the United Nations has spent about $140 million on cholera control in Haiti — not nearly enough to make a dent in the epidemic. Even the United Nations’ own specially appointed experts reported to the body’s Human Rights Council that efforts to wipe out the disease have not taken hold, and recommended a commission on truth, justice, and redress for cholera victims.
This stirring of support is heartening, but US lawmakers and government agencies like the State Department should push for formation of such a commission now. They have a moral duty to lead the way, not follow — outside the courtroom walls.