By Andres Martinez Casares and Andre Paultre
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, (Reuters) – In impoverished Haiti, where access to clean water is tricky and education is lacking, Boy and Girl Scouts are taking to the streets with portable sinks to allow passersby to wash their hands and teach them the importance of doing so to ward off the novel coronavirus.
Haitians are anxious their densely populated nation could be especially hard hit in the pandemic given the lack of sanitation infrastructure and already overwhelmed healthcare services.
Authorities last week declared a state of emergency, closing Haiti’s borders and shuttering schools and places of worship after detecting the first two coronavirus cases. The official tally has since risen to six.
Sporting khaki uniforms and colorful neckerchiefs, the Scouts started positioning themselves two weeks ago in dozens of locations on street corners around the capital with portable wash sinks. They connect these to the water supply of a local school, church or business, or a simple bucket of water.
To attract people, the Scouts sometimes also play a catchy song by Haitian singer Jean Jean Roosevelt mixing zouk, compas and Afrocaribbean beats, with lyrics encouraging hygiene measures to tackle the outbreak, which has infected more than 377,400 worldwide, killing over 16,500.
“The aim of the stations is to develop good habits in Haitians,” Emmanuel Paul, 42, Scout leader for Haiti’s western region, told Reuters.
“The first week, many were reticent, they did not want to wash their hands with the pretext that god is good and will protect us. One even asked me if I believed in it.”
The handwash stations have been put in place in other parts of Haiti too.
Even with the best intentions though, most Haitians do not have running water or their tanks and have to buy it or, if they cannot afford that, use springs where the water is often contaminated.
The difficult access to clean water exacerbated the nine-year cholera outbreak Haiti is only just recovering from that the United Nations said killed nearly 10,000 people.
“Water is not easy to find in my neighborhood so that’s why I’m making the most of it now and each time I find water,” said one passerby, Roselaure Laurent, 17, who took the opportunity to wash her hands at one Scout station.
“This is the first time I washed my hands today.”
The town hall of Port-au-Prince has also installed some hand washing stations in public squares and at the entrance of some public markets, but that’s not enough, Haitians say, and the state is strapped for cash.
Meanwhile, the country where thousands of non-government organizations have operated ever since a devastating 2010 earthquake cannot expect more help from abroad, Scout leader Paul said.
Instead, he hoped people would get inspired by the Scouts initiative and local communities would club together to buy their mobile sinks and require people passing through their neighborhood to wash their hands.
“Right now, all countries have problems,” he said, “and no-one from abroad is going to come and save us.”