LOS PALMAS, Haiti -- The head of the United Nations emerged Monday from a visit with a family of cholera victims in this isolated village in central Haiti, offering words of sympathy and condolences to all in this Caribbean nation who have been affected by the deadly disease.
Ban Ki-moon, on a “necessary pilgrimage” to Haiti — his first visit since the cholera outbreak began almost four years ago — sat under a tree on a wooden chair as he spoke with the Prosper family.
The family is now caring for five nieces and nephews orphaned by the waterborne disease. The patriarch lost his sister — the children’s mother — to cholera while his wife lost her mother. The elderly woman died on the road while being carried to a medical facility almost seven miles away.
Neither Ban nor Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who joined the meeting, offered information about their conversation with the family, which took place behind a cactus lined fence.
“I am very much humbled and sad to have seen all … this tragedy have been affecting, many Haitian people,” Ban said, speaking in English after a brief introduction in Creole.
Prior to his arrival, Ban, in his strongest statement yet about the disease, told the Miami Herald that he believed the United Nations has “a moral responsibility” to help Haiti eradicate cholera.
He reiterated the sentiment, saying, “I believe that all of the international community, including the United Nations, has a moral duty to help those people stem the further spread of cholera.”
In visiting Haiti, Ban is hoping to bring the world’s attention to a 10-year, $2.2 billion cholera elimination program he launched in December 2012 along with the presidents of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic.
The fund has struggled to attract international financial support, and Ban used the occasion to tell the international community “now is not the time for donor fatigue.”
Haiti, he said later in a press conference with President Michel Martelly, needed the assistance of the international community, just like it needed its overdue legislative and local elections to take place this year, to consolidate its progress.
Martelly welcomed Ban and his commitment to helping Haiti get rid of cholera. He said that was more important than assessing blame.
The campaign has set an initial $200 million target for the first two years to help Haiti build clean water and sanitation infrastructure. One in two Haitians do not have access to clean water and 40 percent practice open defecation.
“We will need the solidarity of everyone, of the international community for financing because it’s going to cost a lot of money to resolve this problem,” Lamothe said.
As part of the effort to eradicate cholera and improve Haitians’ lives, Lamothe announced a Total Sanitation campaign. The five-year effort, which currently has $14 million from Canada and Japan, targets 3.8 million Haitians living in rural communities.
Inside a village church, where he laid a wreath to honor cholera victims, Ban, who also was accompanied by his wife, thanked villagers for welcoming him, saying, “This is a necessary pilgrimage for me.”
“I know that the epidemic has caused much anger and fear. I know that the disease continues to affect an unacceptable number of people. Whatever I say today will not lessen the despair you have felt over the loss of your loved ones,” he said.
“My wife and I have come here to grieve with you. As a father and grandfather, and as a mother and grandmother, we feel tremendous anguish at the pain you have had to endure.”
In addition to improving sanitation, the government and Ban also announced a second vaccination campaign against cholera. That effort will target 200,000 people in three regions that are at high risk for cholera outbreaks.
Today, the country is seeing its lowest rates of cholera infections. It has been eradicated in Los Palmas, where it arrived in 2012. The village’s success is credited to an initiative where the 150 families built their own latrines after undergoing training with World Vision and UNICEF.
Lamothe recognized the effort, and later he and Ban laid a ceremonial stone to symbolize the building of a potable water supply.
One of Haiti’s biggest public health crises, cholera has killed 8,563 and sickened more than 704,000.
Unlike in the capital, where calls for the United Nations’ departure from Haiti have grown in the wake of cholera, residents here said they were pleased with the high-level attention.
Some such as Berlius Vol dismissed the suggestion that Nepalese peacekeepers sent to Haiti shortly after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and stationed in Mirebalais, southwest of Los Palmas, were responsible for bringing the disease to Haiti.
But others, such as Rosemene Appolon, who lost a 66-year-old uncle to the disease, said “an apology would be nice. The Bible says when you do some thing wrong to people, you should ask for pardon. But regardless of cholera, they have done a lot of good for us here.”
As Ban spoke of his visit being marked by not just sadness but a lot of hope, Appolon, suffering from Haiti’s latest health crisis, chikungunya, listened.
There was no apology or acknowledgment, but there was hope, she said.