Haiti’s Shadow Sanitation System : The New Yorker

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, “bayakou” is often used as a hateful slur. Public scorn for bayakou is so acute that some never tell their wives what they do for a living; contacting a man like Leon, therefore, often requires navigating the webs of middlemen that obscure his identity. But bayakou fill one of Haiti’s most important roles, separating citizens from their own waste. They have only become more crucial to public health in recent years, as Haiti grapples with the world’s most serious ongoing cholera epidemic, which began, some scientists believe, when a battalion of United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal spilled its infected feces into the country’s most important river system. U.N. officials initially denied responsibility for the epidemic. Even as evidence has mounted for its culpability, the organization has refused to comment on the outbreak’s cause, because “consideration of these claims would necessarily include a review of political and policy matters.”

Cholera likely originated in India, and first swept across Europe and the United States in the late eighteen-twenties and early eighteen-thirties. It is caused by a waterborne microbe that can dehydrate and kill a healthy adult in hours by inducing vomiting and diarrhea. The discovery, in 1854, that a cholera outbreak in London was caused by a cesspool leaking into a water pump contributed to the development of modern epidemiology and the modern municipal sewer. Until then, jobs like Leon’s had been common in Europe and North America: the night-soil men of Victorian London had commanded double the average skilled laborer’s wage for their services while, in tenement-era New York City, cesspools were manually emptied by “necessary tubmen.” Though investment in sewer systems has eliminated both manual sanitation and cholera in areas that have benefited from global trade, the job and the disease are both common among the third of the world’s population that still lacks adequate sanitation. via The New Yorker


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