UN Cholera Envoy: ‘It was never the intention … to bring cholera in Haiti’

Jonathan Katz

Three years after scientists say United Nations soldiers brought a killer strain of cholera to the Western Hemisphere, the UN’s new point man on the crisis answers questions about legal battles, recalcitrant donors, and fighting an epidemic that has killed 9,000 people and counting.

Published February 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm

When it comes to granting interviews about the world’s worst ongoing cholera epidemic, the UN is in a tough spot. On one hand, desperate for funds, the organization needs all the publicity it can get. Fourteen months after it announced a $2.27 billion project to eradicate the waterborne disease in Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic with high-level fanfare, just $180 million has been disbursed. Badly needed water and sanitation infrastructure remain a pipe dream in Haiti, while doctors and other cholera responders are leaving the Caribbean country in droves.

But the UN is equally desperate to avoid questions when it comes to one sticky detail: the overwhelming evidence that the UN caused the epidemic in the first place. The organization’s main tactic has been to cover up its role; recent attempts to get comment on the record have yielded absurdities, obfuscation, and reporters chasing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon down the hall. Now, having declined to internally review the claims, the UN is facing a U.S. federal lawsuit that could compel it to pay billions in restitution—another good reason not to talk.

The man caught in the middle is Pedro Medrano, the assistant UN secretary-general tapped last fall to coordinate the UN’s cholera response in Haiti. A Chilean-born official with decades of UN experience, primarily in food assistance in Latin America, Medrano is committed to ending an outbreak that has killed more than 8,500 in Haiti and hundreds more across the region (it has now spread to the mainland, with a sustained outbreak in…

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Jonathan uses Beacon to uncover the full story in Haiti and at home. From post-disaster cover-ups in Haiti to the ineffectiveness of recovery funds, Jonathan always sticks with a story. You’ll roam the US and abroad with him as he continues to chase the most pressing stories, wherever they may be and wherever he ends up.

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Frustrated by the lack of funding, and concerned about the future of a deadly outbreak, he sat down with me (via Skype) for an interview in which he addressed the disease, the struggling efforts to fight it, and the UN’s ultimate responsibility in ending the crisis. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which I’ve edited for length and clarity: