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Haiti doctors flee state-run hospital to avoid coronavirus infection

The seafoam green rooms of the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince are predominantly empty this week, absent the doctors and nurses who refuse to work for fear of becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Haiti has 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, spanning four departments, Public Health minister Marie Greta Roy Clement told reporters Monday. More than 200 people are quarantined while they await test results, she said. Inside the state-run hospital, a handful of patients sit in plastic chairs waiting for their appointments with the few doctors on call. 

Joseph Lebien, who has worked at the hospital for 26 years, heads the labour union for hospital employees.

"We're standing in the orthopedics waiting room," he explained, showing a dilapidated room with old equipment in need of replacement and some benches.

"Under normal circumstances — meaning before the coronavirus pandemic — you would have seen plenty of patients sitting on these benches. But due to the coronavirus, this place is empty."

Lebien said many of the patients in the orthopedic ward are children with injuries to a limb, but as soon as news arrived that the first two people had tested positive for the lethal virus, most of the medical staff fled.

"The majority of doctors no longer come to work. They are asking the government to provide them with supplies and equipment necessary to protect themselves from the virus. So, this is where we stand," he told VOA. 

Staff doctors and nurses who agreed to speak to VOA before the country's first confirmed cases of coronavirus, admitted to being afraid.

"We are already working under conditions that are not normal for most hospitals, and now it's gotten worse," nurse Marie Catherine said. "The ministry of Public Health has never discussed with us its policy for what to do when we receive the first coronavirus case in Haiti."

The health minister disagreed, explaining that the government will equip designated hospitals with the necessary equipment. The hospital staff told VOA this week that they still do not have the necessary materials.

'Under God's mercy'

In the orthopedics ward, patients who were scheduled to undergo surgery in a week or a month were sent home, Lebien said. Others chose to leave to avoid the possibility of infection.

But some patients do not have the financial means to go home and are left to languish in their hospital beds. Nerciado Altidor was scheduled for foot surgery, which has been postponed indefinitely. He hobbled around on crutches inside the ward.

"I'm miserable," he said. "There are no doctors around. Nothing is functioning. The few of us who are here, it's not by choice. There's nothing here. I've been (in the hospital) for a year and four months."

Neciado Altidor, who is stuck at the hospital, hobbles around on crutches at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince

Altidor told VOA that other patients had fled without being discharged.

"They don't want to die from this contagion," he said. "There is no morale. We are under God's mercy."

Request for supplies, staff

General hospital plays a vital role in the community where it is located. Under normal circumstances, it is the go-to health care facility for people who can't afford a private hospital.

Although the health minister has said coronavirus patients would be treated only at designated hospitals around the country and that all medical staff would receive training on the pandemic, the staff remains unconvinced.

Lebien is asking the government for medical supplies and equipment that would allow the hospital to treat infected patients without putting the staff at risk.

"Patients should be able to be operated on. They should be able to be treated for what is ailing them. That's our request," he said.

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