What lesson can one draw from the discovery last Friday that the cholera that has infected nearly 300,000 Haitians, killing just under 5,000 of them, was probably brought by Nepali troops at the United Nations' peacekeeping mission? This was just as many Haitians claimed, and now a panel of scientists nominated by the UN to settle the matter has found that "evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion" that Haiti's Meye River had been contaminated with South Asian cholera via untreated sewage from the UN camp. Earlier, the UN mission tried to claim that the disease might have come from the sea, but the pattern of infection seemed to rule that out. Now its genetic signature has been found to match that of an outbreak in Nepal in 2009.
Cholera is spread through faeces in drinking water, of course, and Haiti is heading into its wet season. The rate of infection is already starting to rise. The investigative panel has suggested that in future all UN installations should treat their own effluent and screen incoming personnel for the disease. For Haiti, this advice comes too late. Still, it's a little shocking that it had to come at all. Sanitation and disease-screening: one wonders what else that panel of experts should remind the UN about while they have its ear - that surgeons in field hospitals should get their scalpels cleaned between uses? Not to drink-drive? Don't fool around with live ammunition? All that is necessary for evil to triumph, Burke might have said, is for good men to blunder about.
Haiti suffers from almost every kind of misery going. It is violent, corrupt, desperately poor and vulnerable to natural disasters. And it is very likely to get worse: the incoming president Michel Martelly is talking about restoring the army, disbanded by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995. As Beverley Bell, writing in Truthout last week, remarked: "Since Haiti already has a police force to maintain public order and the country is not expected to go to war, Martelly can have only one aim for reintroducing armed forces: to reclaim the tool that past presidents have used to shore up their power by means of violent repression of dissent and competition." Look forward to that.
Haiti so reliably plumbs new depths that each successive horror tends only to elicit the weariest sort of sympathy from the international community. Even now, the UN Cholera Appeal for Haiti has received less than half the funds it needs, and the overall Haiti Appeal received only 10 per cent of the requested funds. There appears to have been little serious progress towards clearing earthquake rubble from Port-au-Prince and even less towards rehousing the nation's 1.5 million homeless. And aid agencies are starting to pull out.
In a way, the neglect and the shadow of future malevolence are the most imaginatively compelling aspects of Haiti's plight. They are in some degree conscious decisions; people choose to ignore or to exploit its condition. And so we find ourselves wanting to argue with them. There's some value in that. Nevertheless, arguments are interminable and can quickly become ends in themselves. Haiti is undoubtedly beset by plenty of bad guys; the question is, is fighting them the best use of our collective energy?
The one area where zeal and good will definitely pay off is in doing the boring, obvious thing thoroughly and well. So yes, when the UN is sending its blue hats in to keep the peace in troubled areas, it should take basic steps not to start epidemics. When rumours surface regarding its own culpability, it should investigate them, instead of automatically denying responsibility and coming up with alternative theories about seaborne contaminants. And anyone who cares should petition the Haitian government to build clean, safe accommodation for its legions of homeless people. Haiti's constitution allows the government to expropriate private land, but for months it has been procrastinating while conditions in the camps worsen. It should get on with it.