Protesters burned tires and blocked roads in Haiti on the second day of a strike by doctors, nurses and other medical professionals due to a spike in gang-related kidnappings that have further destabilized the island in crisis.
The three-day strike began on Monday and included the closure of public and private health facilities in the capital Port-au-Prince and beyond, with only emergency rooms accepting patients.
“We are living in a catastrophic situation where no one is protected,” said Dr. Louis Gérald Gilles, who closed his private practice in the Delmas district on Tuesday to protest against the recent kidnappings of two doctors.
“No professional is protected. Today it could be a doctor; tomorrow they could walk into the office of a lawyer or an architect.
The strike came amid a 180% increase in kidnappings for ransom in Haiti over the past year, of which 655 were reported to police, according to a United Nations report (PDF) from mid-February. Authorities believe the number is much higher because many kidnappings go unreported.
“No social group has been spared; among the victims were workers, shopkeepers, religious leaders, professors, doctors, journalists, human rights defenders and foreign citizens,” the report said.
The most recent kidnappings of two doctors have further stoked fears among staff at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, where unionized workers met on Tuesday. They said conditions had become increasingly dysfunctional since the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise.
They also accused Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s administration of not releasing much-needed funds to the Health Ministry for basic services, adding they were concerned about the lack of security.
“They can come in here, grab anyone and leave without worry,” said Guerline Jean-Louis, a 44-year-old hospital janitor who joined the strike. “That’s why we support the movement.”
The strike also came amid an increase in the number of Haitians leaving the country by land and sea.
U.S. officials said 140 Haitian asylum seekers arrived ashore Monday in Summerland Key, about 32 km (20 miles) from Key West, Florida.
Earlier this month, a wooden boat carrying 300 Haitians ran aground in shallow water off Key Largo, and 163 people swam ashore near the Ocean Reef Club. Many needed medical attention. Another boat carrying 176 Haitians was stopped in January just off the Florida Keys, the US Coast Guard said.
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, U.S. Coast Guard crews have rescued 1,193 Haitians. This compared to the 1,527 Haitians who were rescued in the whole of fiscal year 2021; 418 in 2020 and 932 in 2019, the Coast Guard said.
But the United States quickly deported most Haitian asylum seekers under a controversial public health directive meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. Thousands of people were deported after crossing the US-Mexico border in September and setting up camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
Back in Haiti, some patients, including Mario Fleurimon, were unaware of the strike.
On Tuesday, the 39-year-old schoolteacher walked into a medical complex that was empty except for a single security guard.
Although frustrated at not being able to see a doctor for his diabetes, he said he supported the strike. “There should be a general uprising to fight insecurity,” he said.
In a recent statement, the medical association of Haiti demanded that the government press for the doctors to be released unconditionally and that it implement measures to “stop the wave of insecurity which deprives us of our freedom”. fundamental to go about our business freely”.
The strike by medical professionals is set to end on Wednesday, while another strike by the Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti is set to begin on Thursday.
The association is protesting vehicle theft in the Port-au-Prince community of Martissant, ground zero for warring gangs that have kidnapped or killed several civilians, many of them on public buses.