When natural disaster strikes the so-called developing world it is, both literally and figuratively, no surprise. Pundits and journalists across the political spectrum tend to normalize tragedy in places outside North America and Europe. Even the most well-meaning and most ostensibly progressive among us adopt a similar stance when talking about the world beyond the borders of our own countries. In the United States, we are well aware that disaster strikes “them,” over there, with far more regularity than it does “us,” over here, and we have more or less vague ideas about why that is (must be) so. We suspect that when it comes to disaster, “natural” and “man-made” are in many ways aligned. We are generally prepared to help out, for a time. We send money, supplies, sometimes cameras, but we are eventually fatigued in the face of their seemingly unending tragedies. So we reassure ourselves of their resilience, confident that the NGOs will keep these other places and their peoples afloat, even as we turn away.
On the morning of April 13, 2020, a church in the tiny hamlet of Milot, Haiti was partially destroyed by a fire. Erected in spring 1811 specifically to house the ceremony that made the famous Haitian revolutionary general Henry Christophe the king of Haiti, the church fell into disrepair after King Henry tragically committed suicide on October 8, 1820. A devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Haiti in 1842 caused the structure further damage. Restored for the first time under Haitian President Stenio Vincent in the early twentieth century, local reports on the ground have it that the church burst into flames around 2 AM local time when a man who had been sheltering there lit a fire and subsequently lost control over it. Both the church and the Palace at Sans Souci on whose ground it sits have been classified as World Heritage Sites because of their unique features. In fact, just two years ago, the Haitian organization called ISPAN (The Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National) performed restoration work to patch the church’s unusual domed roof.
To understand the material rather than purely symbolic import of the loss of this church requires acknowledging a larger world system that expects Haiti and Haitians to respond to seemingly cyclical crises with a bottomless well of resilience. What is one loss such as this when there seem to be constant losses requiring equally constant perseverance? For wasn’t it only two months ago on February 17th that in a strange example of cosmological synthesis the statue of Henry Christophe in the country’s capital was threatened by flames? And almost exactly two years before that on February 11, 2018, the ironworks market in Port-au-Prince collapsed in fiery embers.
Seen in the context of not simply these recent earlier fires—or within the frame of prior disease outbreaks of yellow fever, malaria, and cholera on the island, not to mention earthquakes, hurricanes, and contemporary political unrest—but against the backdrop of the global pandemic spreading across the world like a wildfire, the destruction of the church is merely one thread in a much larger web of ensekirite, or insecurity, that the majority of the Haitian people live inside of everyday.
Anthropologist Erica Caple James defines ensekirite in Haiti as the “sense of risk and vulnerability” that “crosse[s] racial, class, and gender boundaries.” Such ensekirite is a form of uncertainty that is likely not familiar to most people living in the region that Haiti’s best known historian, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, called the North Atlantic (the US, Canada, and western Europe). Yet here we all are. In this moment of border-defying “First” and “Third” World–wide disaster, the rich like the poor, the haves like the have-nots, are forced to accept that none of us know what tomorrow may bring and, we must now acknowledge – some of us for the first time – that perhaps we never have. People of color in the United States already are and will no doubt continue to suffer the lion’s share of COVID-19 deaths. But many of those who previously imagined that their “race” and their class status would provide an eternally protective shield against disaster, uncertainty, and, yes, insecurity, now find themselves fearful of the future in ways both existential and concrete. What if there is not enough food? What if we lose our home? What if we can no longer rely on states and cities to educate our children, providing them with not only much needed knowledge, but providing easy, reliable childcare while we work? Will I have access to life-saving medical care if I need it? How is it possible that our government – our borders – cannot protect us from a disease that has proven to be a far more deadly threat than any of the terrorists or “undesirable” immigrants we have been told to fear?
Haiti’s latest tragedy, one that thankfully resulted in no immediate loss of life, might seem less worthy of our attention than the growing number of cases of the novel coronavirus virus in a country with only 64 ventilators for its population of over 11 million. Indeed, the loss of the church has been met with resounding silence. Mentioned in only a handful of brief postings in a few local US newspapers, with the exception of Jacqueline Charles’s reporting for the Miami Herald, the event has for the most part been ignored in the United States. This is unsurprising, as the US now has its own disaster to face. We have neither money, nor supplies, nor cameras to spare. Our international borders, like those of Haiti and the rest of the world, are now mostly closed. Haiti’s people will, of course, continue to be resilient in the face of the present challenges they face. They will have to be, and so will we.