With international turf battles and diplomatic spats slowing the distribution of food, water, medicine and security in Haiti, the stricken people are now fleeing to the countryside. This may actually help the situation in one sense, as it might be easier to get aid to more people in unruined areas; however, it will also put a great strain on regions which are themselves mired in poverty and deprivation, and lacking in infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in Port-au-Prince,  as aid begins to trickle in, anguished medical professionals are lamenting the multitude of unnecessary deaths that the bureaucratic bottlenecks have caused. As the Guardian reports:

Médecins sans Frontières says confusion over who is running the relief effort – the US which controls the main airport, or the UN which says it is overseeing distribution – may have led to hundreds of avoidable deaths because it has not been able to get essential supplies in to the country. "The co-ordination … is not existing or not functioning at this stage," said Benoit Leduc, MSF’s operations manager in Port-au-Prince. "I don’t really know who is in charge. Between the two systems (the US and the UN) I don’t think there is smooth liaison [over] who decides what."

…There has been criticism from some aid agencies of the Americans for giving priority to military flights at the airport while planes carrying relief supplies are unable to land. MSF has had five planes turned back from the airport in recent days, three carrying essential medical supplies and two with expert surgical personnel.

"We lost 48 hours because of these access problems," said Leduc. "Of course it is a small airport, but this is clearly a matter of defining priorities."

Asked how many avoidable deaths had been caused by the delays, he said that hundreds of critical lifesaving operations had been delayed by two days.

"We are talking about septicaemia. The morgues in the hospitals are full," he said.

… John O’Shea, the head of the Irish medical charity, Goal, [said], "there is only one thing stopping a massive and prodigious aid effort being rolled out and that is leadership and co-ordination. You have neither in Haiti at the moment."

The American government response has largely been a militarized one. But the celebrated American war machine — whose annual budgets could lift millions out of poverty, deprivation and lack of infrastructure every year — seems too musclebound to respond with the precision and flexibility that the situation requires. No doubt most of the individuals involved in the effort are working tirelessly; but a system designed for war, for death, destruction and domination, will never be a fit instrument for humanitarian relief.

The chief face of the United States in Haiti right now are highly-armed veterans of imperial wars, trained for conquest and occupation — and many of them strained by multiple tours. And while many Haitians will greet the sight of any organized force coming to help them, America’s long and ugly history with Haiti is not forgotten either, as Ed Pilkington notes:

The Haitian in whose house in Port-au-Prince we are staying – a prominent businessman and generally very pro-America – keeps a cherished machete on his wall. It was used, he explained to me one night, by his grandfather to attack US soldiers during the 1915-1934 American occupation of his country.

Writing on Monday, Pilkington also detailed the fatal slowness of the musclebound relief effort:

Day seven of the catastrophe, yet wherever we go we are still surrounded by crowds of people living on the streets pleading with us for water. A few miles away at the airport huge quantities of supplies are stacked high in the sun. Under a deal finalised between the heads of relevant parties on Sunday night, US troops will be responsible for securing the incoming supplies at the airport, and then moving them to four central distribution hubs. One of those hubs is at the national football stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince and another at a golf course near the US embassy.

That will free up troops from the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti, so the official line goes, to take charge of the next stage of the process – getting the aid out of the central hubs and to the neighbourhoods. For that purpose the UN has pinpointed 14 distribution locations where it, together with aid groups, will hand out the goods.

The plan sounds neat, thoroughly thought-out, fool-proof. There is only one problem: it is several days late.

A vast, permanent, completely mobile, well-trained, civilian rescue and restoration corps could easily be maintained by the United States, at the merest fraction of what it now pays out for its regular "war supplements" — never mind the obscenely bloated ‘regular’ Pentagon budget. (And yes, such a corps would have a security component, made up of officers who have been trained to deal with suffering people in extremity — not those trained to inflict suffering and extremity on people.)

This seems like a somewhat better use of public money than, say, waging endless wars to "project dominance" to the four corners of the earth, or bailing out a kleptoplutocracy that has wrecked the global economy and ruined the lives of millions around the world — or even enriching pharmaceutical and med-biz conglomerates beyond the dreams of avarice just to claim you have passed health care "reform" without actually reforming an insanely expensive and unjust system.  But like Dennis Kuchinich’s idea of a "Department of Peace," any notion of a full-scale rescue corps would be hooted off the national stage by the super-savvy serious "realists" who rule our discourse, and our lives.

So we will go on as we are now. When natural disasters strike — and they will be striking more often, and with deadlier effect, on our crowded, corroded planet in the years to come — we will simply follow the same old pattern: launching ad hoc, inept attempts to retool a few bits and pieces of the lumbering War Machine for temporary humanitarian service. And once again, hundreds, if not thousands, of stricken people will die needless deaths.


NOTE: As noted here the other day, two good venues for giving aid to Haiti are Partners in Health and the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, both of whom have been working in Haiti for many years. 

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