A daily exodus of Haitians fleeing the rapid increase of coronavirus cases in the neighboring Dominican Republic -- many evading military patrols and medical screenings as they sneak back into Haiti through the closed land border -- is raising concerns about Haiti's ability to halt the spread of the deadly virus.
"Even in normal situations, managing the flows at the borders is incredibly difficult," said Giuseppe Loprete, the country director for the United Nations' International Organization for Migration. The agency has adapted its tracking of migrant flows along the 224 miles dividing Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola to support the ongoing preparedness and response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
"The best that we can do now is buy some time for the health authorities to put some proper screenings at the border to identify positive cases or people with symptoms although we know COVID-19 is spreading also to people with no symptoms," he said. "We can really prevent the spread of the virus across the country if we do something now. Three to four weeks from now the virus will already be spreading."
More than 11,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic have returned home since March 29, according to IOM's monitoring, which tracked movement across the four official border checkpoints and 46 unofficial crossings.
While about 2,500 passed through official checkpoints where Haiti's health ministry has installed hand-washing stations and placed temperature takers to screen returnees for flulike symptoms, thousands of others arrived back undetected and unchecked for a fever or other symptoms. They returned via rivers and mountains bordering the porous frontier that is believed to have at least 100 crossings.
That daunting reality is made worse by the fact that many Haitians are ignoring social-distancing standards and attending funerals, nightclubs and pre-Easter Vodou celebrations, despite a government order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people.
Of 4,016 confirmed COVID-19 cases registered across 33 Caribbean countries and territories by the Caribbean Public Health Agency, as of Wednesday, the Dominican Republic accounted for more than 52% with 2,111 cases. By Thursday, it was up to 2,349 infections and 118 deaths.
Haiti, in comparison, has reported 30 laboratory confirmed cases of the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and announced its second death Thursday, a 69-year-old woman with underlining health issues who died in its northwest region.
Many Haitians believe the actual number in Haiti is higher. Unlike the Dominican Republic, which has conducted more than 4,000 tests, Haiti is not aggressively testing. The country's weak health system has struggled to prepare structures outside of Port-au-Prince to cope with the pandemic, and has faced challenges doing contact tracing of confirmed cases in the face of deep stigmatization over the virus.
In addition, crowds continue to gather in beauty salons, public markets, nightclubs and on the streets for cultural celebrations such as Rara, the festive street procession common during Easter week.