Forgotten Populations: Vacant Solutions for the Disappeared
By Ryan Orr
Ryan is a third-year Biology and Global Public Health major and Bioethics. He currently serves as President of the Bioethics Society at UVa, Student Representative for the UVa College of Art & Sciences College Foundation, Program Director for Madison House Medical Services, and as a TA for Organic Chemistry. In addition, Ryan is actively involved in clinical research through the UVa Department of Infectious Diseases and International Health. His research is heavily focused on the clinical significance of antibiotic resistant organisms.
We traveled from the north of the island along a highway funded by foreign aid and investment; the smooth black surface absorbing the relentless heat of the Dominican Sun. After a week in the rural north, we were all very much mentally prepared to finally return to the Wi-Fi haven of our Santo Domingo hotel, which was conveniently situated in the tourism-focused Colonial District of the city. What had at first seemed to be typical of any city, the wide variety of restaurants and retailers seemed far beyond extravagant compared to the single street bodega that we called our second home for the past week.
We weren’t going to be making a direct drive to I waved at Santo Domingo as drove past. We were on our way to Batey La Union where our hosts had enlisted our research team to help take some preliminary measurements in the small rural community.
I thought it seemed like an easy enough task. We’d drive in, meet the town representative, share a meal, take the measurements, and head out all in about 4 hours: a seemingly quick job requiring minimal physical labor. This was not the case, however. Before we left that morning, my group was made aware that Batey La Union was a predominantly Haitian-Dominican community. It occurred to me that this was a significant caviot, as the Dominican Republic has a deep cultural divide between the ethnic Haitian-Dominicans and the ethnic Hispanic-Dominicans.
After taking a quick turn off of the highway, it was only a slow five-minute drive until we pulled up to the town. A sanctuary being strangled by the endless green of sugar fields, Batey La Union existed as a blemish on the landscape. On my left, I saw multilevel concrete houses. On my right rose a hill, dominating the landscape 200 yards high. Covering the hill’s surface was a mass of concrete, sheet metal, wiring, jagged piping, and people. This was poverty. This is what changes people, what strips them of hope for a better tomorrow. Appalling by basic western, some may even civilized, standards, the people living in Batey La Union were stuck - they were physically isolated indicating limited aid/assistance from outside organizations. I wandered about how the community had reached this point of isolation, desolation. (list some reasons here). Amongst these, it occurred to me that there remained only one reason for the consistency of such a state: government inaction.
The average Dominican does not place an exorbitant amount of faith in their elected representatives, however, even less confidence is allotted by the over 200 ethnic Haitian communities scattered across the sugarcane countryside and urban slums. They, in practice, have no representation and see little, if any, intervention by government entities. In fact, if government intervention comes to their homes, it is often met with fear of deportation or persecution. These people are forced to work in a system that’s pitted against them and established in a way that makes it impossible for them to advance.
This brought to the fore my observations from the US. The recent push of blatantly discriminatory voter ID laws across certain US states exemplify how even the United States, as it presently exists, is not immune from legislative prejudice. False declarations of voter fraud and identify theft obscure or, perhaps, condilude the minds of respectable policy makers, initiating a black hole endeavor to fix a problem that does not exist. Constriction of early voting hours, disqualification of previously acceptable form of government ID, and the elimination of basic voting conveniences have uprooted our democracy at the hands of fear-ridden legislators who wish to remain in consolidated power. How is it that these policies, often in place since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and only aimed to increase voter participation, have fallen as a regulative priority? These immoral actions only distance a government from their rightful constituents, pushing them into the shadows of false representation, voiceless and, ever increasingly, hopeless.
Even louder is the existence of the Republican Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump, who has routinely encouraged violence and stigmatized millions of Americans with regard to religion, ethnicity, and gender; all the while standing on a platform that vows to build walls, deport families, and ban Muslim immigration. As voters of a democracy, we look to our leaders for hope of a better future. If that is absent and there is only our community to count of, what more should we expect of our live? Those who’ve been forgotten can only wait at the chance of finding their advocate.
Upon visual analysis, I acknowledge that it was beyond evident that the problems facing the Batey La Union community exceeded their political challenges. The most pertinent issue, as I perceived it, was the extreme poverty.When I measured room dimensions in preparation of laying concrete, I realized that the “houses” in which we were working were falling off their foundations. It seemed that a jostle in any one direction would send the ramshackle walls tumbling down the hillside, triggering a domino effect of the crammed sheet metal ocean lying in its path. It would take serious investment to bring this community up to any established standard that the government had set in other rural communities (coincidentally in predominantly ethnic Hispanic communities).
An additional challenge for the community was its distance from the city. In the north, we were at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest city and yet we found ourselves working on a government funded public school in the middle of the jungle. Now a mere 50 yards from a major national highway, there was no running water, no electricity, and no presence of any government service. These people were alone, forgotten. We completed our work and began our journey back on the highway. About five minutes further down the road, we stopped at an air-conditioned gas station with free Wi-Fi. Most of us sat down, took a deep breath, and then swallowed some ice cream from the electric freezer. The frozen dairy reassured us that our version of a normal society was never far from reach - yet I wandered if community members from Batey La Union experience this same security.
What I witnessed at Batey La Union was something I had not before seen anywhere else. Living in the suburbs of Washington D.C. provides an extremely sheltered environment that is often immune to negative economic trends. Prosperity and growth always seem to find their way to the DMV area, swimming in the flood of tax dollars and foreign investment. 50 miles away, the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia are home to some of the most impoverished Americans. They have little or no access to standard emergency services, healthcare, dental care, employment opportunities, etc. Like the ethnic Haitians of Batey La Union, these people rarely find themselves in the view of legislators. This situation is mirrored with many other subgroups of Americans. A significant number of American Indians live in squalid conditions entrenched with resource insecurity. Presently holding the lowest health status over any other racial group in the United States, American Indians have long suffered from inadequate access to healthcare and emergency services, higher usage rates of alcohol and tobacco, and high levels of resource insecurity (e.g., clean water).
1. Camila Domonoske, “As November Approaches, Courts Deal Series Of Blows To Voter ID Laws,” NPR, last modified August 2, 2016, accessed August 10, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/02/488392765/as-november-approaches-courts-deal-series-of-blows-to-voter-id-laws.
2. “Disparities,” Indian Health Service, last modified March 2016, accessed August 10, 2016, https://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities/.
The group Remote Area Medical (RAM) was founded in 1985 to specifically target these inequalities and aid populations that lack basic healthcare.Through seasonal mobile health and dental clinics, RAM is able to provide free services to the thousands who are able to attend. A great and noble cause, but tragic at a second thought. How is it that this type of group exists in our developed country, a country that maintains the highest GDP in the world? These problems are not anything new and direct inaction is the culprit. NGOs and charitable organizations can only do so much; official recognition as equal citizens is the only acceptable plan that lays the foundation for a sustainable and well-rounded solution.
Almost every country in the world has a community just like Batey La Union: forgotten, abandoned, ignored. Hard working people are left to waste and the weeds of poverty are allowed to sprout roots that penetrate deep into the community. Much can be done to avoid situations seen in the American Appalachia and Dominican Bateys. Acknowledging that one’s freedom is dynamically interwoven with that of another, regardless of ethnicity, creed, income, etc., is crucial for a human understanding of equality. It’s only a matter of will and devotion of policymakers to serve all of their constituencies fairly and without prejudice.
The only image deemed appropriate to take at Batey La Union: the road leaving the center of town.