Haiti to reopen textile factories despite coronavirus fears

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti will reopen its key textile industry next week, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe said on Wednesday, suggesting the impoverished nation had escaped the worst of the global coronavirus pandemic by imposing early on a state of emergency.

The poorest country in the western hemisphere typically struggles to fight serious disease outbreaks due to its high population density, lack of water and sanitation infrastructure and inadequate health services.

Yet so far Haiti has only registered 41 cases and 3 deaths, compared to 3,614 cases and nearly 200 deaths in neighboring Dominican Republic.

Both have around 11 million inhabitants but Haiti receives far fewer tourists and immediately declared a state of emergency after detecting its first two cases nearly a month ago, closing borders and shuttering schools, places of worship and industrial parks.

“I think we reacted very well even if the population had lots of little lapses, dancing ... block parties,” Jouthe said.

Haiti has carried out relatively few tests - 453, according to the health ministry - meaning the incidence of the virus could actually be higher.

Jouthe said the initial term of the state of emergency expires shortly and the government was considering whether to extend it. Either way, it had decided to allow the textile manufacturing sector, that accounts for 90 percent of exports, to restart from next Monday.

The industry would start running at 30 percent of its capacity to ensure social distancing in the workplace.

All over the world countries are debating when best to relax their lockdowns designed to prevent the spread of the virus and to restart the economy.

Haiti’s decision may seem premature given health experts warn the outbreak has yet to peak in Latin America and the Caribbean. But its economic needs are also greater than most.

“The question was whether to die of hunger or of coronavirus,” said Georges Sassine, the head of Haiti’s Industrial Association.

Sassine pointed out that remittances, Haiti’s primary source of hard currency, would likely collapse this year given Haitian migrants were typically on the bottom rung of the economy so would be hardest hit by the global recession.

“The government does not have enough financial resources to support the wages of the workers,” said Haitian economist Etzer Emile. “I also think ... these factories do not want to lose income, which in turn also helps the country to balance its balance of payments.”

Factories accounting for around a third of textile manufacturing workers were allowed to re-open two weeks ago in order to make cloth masks and medical garments.

The government intends on distributing millions of masks for free to the population, more than half of which lives under the poverty line.

Reporting by Andre Paultre; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Michael Perry