Hidden disasters

Posted on 05/21/10

Dear Friends,

When walking through a settlement of an estimated 45,000 displaced people in one of the poorest corners of Port-au-Prince recently, I could not help but feel as if somehow, despite our best efforts to describe the scope of the humanitarian crisis following January's earthquake, it is impossible to convey the devastation in its totality.  The disaster is born of both the sudden, massive shock on January 12 that shattered countless buildings, homes, and lives in the space of a minute, and the grinding, slow-motion calamities of disease, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation that crush the lives and hopes of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

“...a mother...who has sewn sheets togehter to shelter her family from the scorching sun and drenching rains.”


That day, I met four hungry children and their mother who, without any resources or support, had simply sewn sheets together to shelter her family from the scorching sun and drenching rains. I listened to a father, who lost his wife, tell me of his struggle to find formula to feed his infant daughter. I saw orphaned kids trying to adjust to living with their cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. And I watched as hundreds of people swarmed to meet dump trucks filled with gravel, every adult and child grabbing as much as they could to prevent the pools of sewage-filled mud from seeping into their makeshift shelters.

This anguish, as well as less visible suffering, will affect Haiti for many years to come. Rural families who have long relied on a parent or child working in Port-au-Prince for financial support have lost that economic lifeline in their hour of greatest need, as they struggle to house and feed additional relatives and friends who fled Port-au-Prince. The disabled and mentally ill fall further into the depths of poverty, confusion, and despair, as already overburdened health and social services unravel.

Haiti's acute humanitarian crisis is rooted in the chronic conditions of deprivation and disease that plague poor communities and countries throughout the world, conditions that we have confronted not just in Haiti but in the eleven other countries where we work. Years of experience have taught us that no matter the place-Haiti, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Peru, Russia, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Burundi, Kazakhstan, or the Dominican Republic-our investments in comprehensive and integrated health and social services make all the difference in being able to respond to a community's needs during acute and chronic disasters. And all of the places we work suffer from the unrelenting cycle of poverty and disease-a disaster of incalculable proportions.

“And all of the places we work suffer from the unrelenting cycle of poverty and disease—a disaster of incalculable proportions.”


A miner, working in South Africa, contracts drug-resistant tuberculosis and returns home to the mountains of Lesotho after being fired from his job. Not only does his family lose its only income but the children also become infected with tuberculosis, an unavoidable contagion in the small, single-room dwellings that are typical in rural Lesotho. These hidden crises persist around the world and can only be addressed with a comprehensive approach to health care, social services, and community engagement that treats both the symptoms of the individual patient and the lack of food, education, and jobs that increases vulnerability to disease for entire families and communities.

Whether it is helping devise a national plan for community health workers in Rwanda, delivering state-of-the-art care to tuberculosis patients in the rugged mountains of Lesotho, developing innovative, point-of-care electronic medical records in rural Malawi, or advising the Haitian government on national recovery plans, Partners In Health works shoulder-to-shoulder with the individual in pain, the family worried about where its next meal is coming from, the community in need of a school, the district that lacks a hospital, and the country trying to build a strong public health care delivery system.

Now, with the world focused on the pain of the people of Haiti, I urge you all to think not just of what we can do to help one life in Haiti, but what we can do to help millions of people living in similar conditions around the world. Please join us now by making a contribution to our worldwide efforts. Together we can demonstrate the change that is possible when resources-human and financial-are mobilized in partnership with, and with leadership from, local communities and institutions. You have already made a difference in Haiti. Help us sustain those efforts in the months to come and ensure that Partners In Health can continue to make a difference in the eleven other countries where we work. Thank you for your engagement and consideration.


Ophelia Dahl
Executive Director

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