For Haiti’s dead-by-cholera body collectors, the job takes hazardous turn

Residents afraid of catching cholera turned on a group of body collectors — and the photojournalists following them — Saturday, snatching the lead supervisor and beating him up before calling police.

“It was a bad moment. I really thought they were going to kill me,” Rochefort Saint-Louis, the supervisor of a Ministry of Health body collection team told The Miami Herald, after he was eventually released.

Saint-Louis, 30, is among a group of scrappy young men recently hired by Haiti’s Minstry of Health to travel through the country to pick up victims of cholera who have died in institutions, in homes or in many cases, who were abandoned on the streets.

He continued working after the incident, transporting 13 dead-by-cholera victims to a far flung burial site near the city of Cabaret, not far from a mass grave for vicitims of the January earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000.

“I was afraid to lose the job,” he said. “This is my first job.”

Still, Saint-Louis and his team are learning that the job is both hazardous and sad. They had already picked up one dead cholera victim when they turned into a neighborhood in the city of Carrefour to collect another at the request of government officials. Three foreign photojournalists and their Haitian driver were following to document the work on film.

As they pulled up, they were greeted by an angry crowd.

“Residents confronted the truck with the body and said we don’t want your cholera here,” said Lee Celano, a freelance photographer. He was injured by shattered glass after rocks, thrown by the crowd, broke three of the car’s windows.

“I don’t really understand why they turned on us. It just shows how there is a strong amount of paranoia over cholera here and how they are completely irrational about it,” Celano said. “People are really scared and doing irrational things.”

Cholera is a waterborne infection that is transmitted by drinking or eating food that is contaminated. It is not likely spread by casual contact.

Celano said the crowd soon began setting up barricades with rocks to prevent everyone from leaving. At some point, someone grabbed Saint-Louis. They stole his cellphone and money and beat him, he said.

His abductors eventually called the police to say someone had come to dump a dead-by-cholera victim in their community.

The police came and arrested him, Saint-Louis said. He was eventually released after police realized he was a government employee.

“The government really needs to give us the means to do our job,” said Saint-Louis, who began work on Monday and seriously contemplated quiting even before Saturday’s incident. “They have to educate the population. Sensitize them. We are trying to protect the public health, but the people could end up killing us. They almost did today.”

Instead of an ambulance, the team drives a truck where the body bags are exposed, adding to the population’s fears. They also do not have police escorts as they go through neighborhoods retrieving bodies off streets where they’ve been abandoned by family and friends, or at private homes.

On Sunday, Haitian officials are supposed to tape a public service campaign to inform the public on the post-mortem procedure.

Meanwhile on Saturday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced that their response to its $164 million appeal to fight the waterborne infection in Haiti has so far been “insufficient,” with less than 10 percent of what’s needed pledged.

Nearly 50,000 people have sought medical attention of whom 19,646 cases have been confirmed as having cholera, the United Nations said in a statement.

“Without medical help, the mortality rate will increase dramatically. Oral rehydration salts or home made sugar-salt solutions are enough to treat 80 percent of cases. If we can provide timely treatment to patients we can save lives,” said Nigel Fisher, humanitarian chief in Haiti.