Port au Prince, Haiti and its pre-Victorian notions of dirt and disease

A 19th century poster in a London sickened by cholera

A 19th century poster in a London sickened by cholera

Unfortunately, The Guardian’s ‘Sick Cities’ series makes me think of Port au Prince, which is probably one of the least healthful places I’ve ever lived. Anywhere.

This is a city reminiscent of pre-Victorian times with open sewers and shared toilets out in the open. In Port au Prince, a couple of hours of rain will bring all the slop down the hills, turning the roads into stinking rivers. Through these, the most hapless of the city’s residents (which is to say 98 per cent) wade, thigh-deep, sometimes waist-deep. That’s their only way to get home or get anywhere. Click here for Richard Morse’s photo of the dirt we take as routine in Port au Prince. And where there is dirt, disease must follow.

T’was well said that cities are a veritable playground for parasites, enabling speedy spread and access to lots of human beings, ie “lots more opportunities for vectoring and transmission”, according to London-based Science historian and Wellcome engagement fellow Richard Barnett.

But interestingly, it was disease that led to the the creation of the modern city. “We owe it first to plague, and then to cholera in the 19th century,” says Mr Barnett. He means the four main outbreaks of cholera in London over four decades, starting in the 1830s. The outbreaks forced the authorities to take public health, sanitation, sewage and fresh water seriously because the Victorians believed cholera was “spread by miasmas, which are basically bad smells… rotting stuff – sewage, horse shit, industrial waste – … decayed, gave off poisonous vapours, which blew about in the air and were breathed in.”

It led to a new collectivist civic sense, argues Mr Barnett, an acknowledgement that “a population lives and dies together, and we all have to take care of one another.”

Would that such Victorian good sense would dawn on the arbiters of Port au Prince’s destiny.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac