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Structural Violence and Hurricane Matthew in Haiti

Paul Farmer’s chapter “Suffering and Structural Violence explains the concept of structural violence and applies it to Haiti. According to Farmer, structural violence occurs when the political, economic, or social structure of the country facilitates the suffering of certain categories of people. Vulnerable communities are characterized by various axes of oppression, which can be any characteristics that distinguish them from privileged communities.

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For instance, gender is a significant factor, since women are under the increased risk of rape and various health issues associated with sexual activity, pregnancy, and childbirth. Race and low income are other examples of the axes of oppression. In Haiti, poverty and female sex are the two factors that impact life quality the most. With the majority of the population earning less than $1 a day, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. The society is structured, with middle- and high-class families living primarily in the cities, and the poor living in villages with no decent infrastructure and little access to healthcare or protection of the police.

The situation worsened after several natural catastrophes, starting from the 2010 earthquake, which left two hundred thousand people dead and even more families homeless. This year, Hurricane Matthew has landed another major hit on the country. This paper aims to explore the issues of structural violence in the aftermath of the hurricane using two quotations from Farmer’s text, as well as the recent newspaper reports to build an understanding of the issue.

By what mechanisms, precisely, do social forces ranging from poverty to racism become embodied as individual experience? This has been the focus of most of my research in Haiti, where political and economic forces have structured risk for AIDS, tuberculosis, and, indeed, most other infectious and parasitic diseases. (Farmer 369)

In this quote, Farmer argues that one of the structures supporting human suffering in Haiti is the government itself. Indeed, health infrastructure in Haiti does not have enough resources and staff to provide for the majority of the population. Lack of contraception leads to unwanted pregnancies, dangerous abortions, the spread of AIDS and STDs. This is not the same for every layer of society: middle-class families living in the capital have better access to healthcare than poor farmer households.

However, the government’s influence on human suffering extends beyond health issues. For instance, Haiti’s social policy could hardly be deemed efficient: law enforcement is outnumbered, and the justice system is still in development – anti-rape laws were not enacted officially until 2005. The level of crime rises exponentially in the poorest regions with few opportunities to control the criminals.

In light of recent events, the impact of government’s actions (or lack thereof) is even more apparent, as The Economist argues in the article “The Misery of Hurricane Matthew is Deepened by Human Failure”. The article explains that the reason for such a high death toll compared to other regions is the lack of government support before the disaster.

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For instance, there is a set procedure in Cuba, which ensures the safety of the citizens in case of an approaching hurricane: “State-controlled media warn residents for days of approaching hurricanes; schools are closed and turned into shelters. State-owned buses are dispatched to evacuate residents. Local party snoops, known as the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, with representatives on every block, make sure the elderly or infirm are not left behind” (The Economist par. 3).

Haiti’s government, on the other hand, cannot operate effectively in case of a crisis: “Haiti’s government barely functions. The infrastructure is poor, with few solid buildings. Haiti’s media are chaotic. High crime rates mean residents refuse to leave their homes unattended” (The Economist par. 4). The consequences of the government’s inaction primarily hit the underprivileged rural communities with worse living conditions and higher crime levels, which makes this situation a good example in support of Farmer’s statement and shows how the government supports and facilitates structural violence.

Today, the world’s poor are the chief victims of structural violence — a violence that has thus far defied the analysis of many who seek to understand the nature and distribution of extreme suffering. Why might this be so? One answer is that the poor are not only more likely to suffer; they are also less likely to have their suffering noticed… (Farmer 383)

In this quote, Farmer addresses the fact that most of the structural violence is directed against the poor communities, mainly because the poor are silenced, and the general public is oblivious to their suffering, and thus nothing is done to end it. In Haiti, poor people do not have any influence on the social or political situation in the country, and they are too preoccupied with daily survival issues to fight for the right to be heard.

Even the health, crime, and death statistics used in various studies are unreliable, as they only contain officially reported cases. Most deaths in Haiti go unreported, and so do most crimes. Poor access to healthcare leads to a lot of issues being unaccounted for, including serious infectious diseases, such as cholera and AIDs. In general, the lack of comprehensive data means that the suffering of people in the poorest regions could be worse than we expect.

This issue has become especially prominent after Hurricane Matthew. Firstly, the total amount of deaths resulting from the catastrophe cannot be measured correctly, since there is no access to poorer regions: “towns that were reportedly hard hit but which have been hard to reach, such as Jeremie, on the north side of the southern peninsula, had yet to be counted” (Partlow and Murphy par. 5). Access to health care following the disaster remains fragmented, which led to the rise in infectious diseases, such as cholera.

Clean water and sanitation are essential in treating cholera, however not all the regions of Haiti can provide those: “At least three cases of cholera were reported […] two people with cholera had shown up Thursday, but the hospital staff didn’t have the intravenous fluids or antibiotics to treat the disease” (Partlow and Murphy par. 14). Overall, it is, indeed, the poor people that suffer the most in the current situation, and the actual extent of their struggles is not visible to the general public.

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In conclusion, I would say that there is no doubt that the principles of structural violence, explained by Farmer, apply to the present situation in Haiti. Moreover, the concept of structural violence allows for a better understanding of the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. For instance, it underlines the role of government as an agent of suffering and shows why the poorest people are more affected by natural disasters. A deeper understanding of the structural violence in the present context could be very helpful in determining a plan of action to help the victims and to minimize the risk of similar issues in the future.

Works Cited

Farmer, Paul. “Suffering and Structural Violence.” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically about Global Issues, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, Worth, 2005, 368-93.

Partlow, Joshua and Brian Murphy. “Death Toll from Hurricane Matthew Surpasses 300 as Haiti Tallies Devastation.” The Washington Post. 2016. Web.

The Misery of Hurricane Matthew is Deepened by Human Failure.The Economist. 2016. Web.

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