WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE - Not far from the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s National Identification Office (Office Nationale d’Identification) is packed with hundreds of people seeking national ID cards this week, despite the government’s directive to stay home and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
The office is noisy, it’s chaotic, the room is not big enough for all the people lined up. Water and snack merchants holding rectangular-shaped plastic containers on their heads stroll around the room, looking for customers.
Outside, a coronavirus alert is posted on a digital billboard. “Wash your hands often, stand at least two meters apart,” it advises, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A woman standing in the long line is frustrated.
“They’ve asked churches, schools to shutter – but how many people are in this room?” she complained. “There are more people here than in a classroom,” she told VOA. “Most classrooms hold 22 students, how many people do you see in here? There isn’t even a bucket of water available so people can wash their hands in this so-called government office.”
The woman also questioned if the ONI employees were taking health precautions.
“They lick their finger, then touch paper documents, then (the same hand) touches their face, handles water bottles and then food,” she said, visibly irked by the notion. “So when I get infected, I’ll go home and infect my kids – you see the damage this pandemic is going to do in Haiti?”
She said the government needs to take charge and deploy health measures quickly to resolve the situation.
In Haiti, national ID cards, which contain a citizen’s photo, name, date of birth and registry number equivalent to a U.S. Social Security Number, are required for official activities such as bank transactions.
“We’re all exposed here,” another woman standing in line told VOA. “The government talks but doesn’t really act on its directives. Everyone is exposed and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
A man standing in line with a mask around his neck said he feels vulnerable, too.
“The rules are not respected, so I feel like I’m exposed (to the possibility of infection). I’ve been standing in line a long time, it’s a waste of time really, but I have to do it. I’m not at all confident that I will not go back home infected,” he said.
VOA Creole asked Tacite Toussaint, the secretary of state for public security who oversees the ONI, what his ministry is doing to protect customers.
“I’m here to inspect the situation, to see how things are evolving,” he said. “I found the DDO (office director) on the premises, and the DDO has already taken some measures, so I’m here to find out what those measures are so that the job can be done seamlessly at the same time we are protecting the public.”
Haiti has 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, Public Health Minister Marie Greta Roy Clement said earlier this week.
She said the majority of infections are among people 20-40 years old. There are more than 400 others under quarantine by the health ministry because they either were passengers on a flight with someone who tested positive or traveled to Haiti from a country where coronavirus has spread.
Clement said Haiti has ordered more than $10 million worth of health supplies from China, to be distributed to medical facilities around the country.
During a national address Tuesday evening, President Jovenel Moise urged the public to adhere to the coronavirus directives, which includes wearing masks.
“The war we are waging today is everyone’s war,” he said. “Only by working together can we win this war. If we don’t work together to prevent the spread of coronavirus in our country, we will all pay the consequences.”
Yves Manuel in Port-au-Prince contributed to this story.