The International Writers Magazine: Comment
Year of Disasters
the world experiencing compassion fatigue?
to the Red Cross now
you dont examine the situation too closely, you give help without
asking too many questions. You give because you, heaven forbid, wouldnt
like to be in the same situation. Guilt mixed with relief I suppose.
We give because it makes us feel better and thank god we do give because
without compassion the world would be a terrible mean place to live.
However - one hears a lot about compassion fatigue these days, a mental
state given over to people overwhelmed by the news of those suffering
from the many disasters that occur across the world this year.
2005 began with a Tsunami in which hundreds of thousands were displaced
or overwhelmed by the sudden rise of the oceans from Thailand to SriLanka
and in between. We watched with horror as people and towns and villages
were washed away and we (from across the whole world) gave.
We gave a lot and truth be told, much of what was given is still to
be spent as local politicians, local mafia and NGOs still wrangle
over whose patch it is gets developed. The people remain traumatised,
most likely impoverished twice over despite the generosity of those
who gave help.
We gave again when we saw the pictures of those stranded in New Orleans,
we looked on with horror as the waters rose and destroyed cities
and towns and yet, compassion was found. We felt their frustration as
no help came and confusion too as the news media could so easily get
in but the victims didnt seem well disposed to organising themselves.
(We can leave the looting aside, no one is free from temptation and
I have to say, if I could have been tempted too given the circumstances
and an unprotected bank vault or diamond store you knew you could just
wade in and take from).
There is much criticism for incredible bungling, stupid delay, a poverty
of political vision (on both sides) and President Bushs ratings
are mired still in the aftermath just as Hurricane Wilma makes
itself known in the last days of the hurricane season.
Now here we are with the horror of three million homeless in Pakistan
perhaps as many as fifty thousand dead (so far), two weeks on
from the earthquake and still the Pakistani Government has not reached
or given help to those in the most remote regions. There turns out to
be a worldwide shortage of winter tents and as the cold weather rushes
in, more may actually die from the cold than were crushed by their homes
and shifting mountains.
In the UK the British people have given fifteen million pounds so far,
the government pledged twelve million in aid and temporary helicopter
relief, and so too have other countries rushed in to help. The USA most
of all with giant helicopters, alongside Russian help.
We give with compassion, we count ourselves lucky we arent lying
under rubble or missing an arm and leg and turn our thoughts to Christmas
shopping (Only 9 weeks to go must hurry).
Well perhaps there is a connection here we are missing? Of course there
are conundrums that sceptics point out with muted voices.
Why werent their warning systems in place already for countries
at regular threat of Tsunamis? Is there one in place even now? Japan
has one, but what about Burma? Thailand? Are they doing practice drills,
organising disaster teams for the next one? One wonders.
In New Orleans, we discover, they have known the city was at threat
from a force five hurricane for years and did nothing, or
very little about it. The levees were inadequate and cut backs prevented
improvements. You could ask what is the point of redeveloping any city
on the Gulf coast, as surely this can only happen repeatedly now that
Antartica is melting and the sea levels are all going to rise (sooner
than later in our generation, not the next). You dont have
to question this, it is a fact. The ice caps are melting.
Check it out yourself. Next time you have a bath, try water displacement
theory. There is no hole in the centre of the earth, no plughole, it
has to go somewhere and that somewhere might be your front yard!
Cynics might say that Pakistan could have been better prepared if almost
half of its GDP was not devoted to developing atomic weapons and missile
systems and maintaining a huge army (millions strong). An Army that
cannot help its people clear rubble at a moments notice doesnt
look like an army well prepared for war, despite the huge money spent
on it and will not be loved or respected when the dust settles.
Sure they are helping now but how very slow they were to react. The
tension between Pakistan and India over the very territory destroyed
by earthquake could be interpreted as a message from Allah. That message
being Get real but I guess it wont be heeded.
Disaster doesnt happen in isolation. People die in Pakistan because
in an earthquake the very ground turns to liquid and their houses, which
are often made of mud, have no resistance. There is virtually no building
code in most of Pakistan (that is kept to or obeyed) and that goes for
Turkey as well, or have we forgotten last years earthquakes there
already. Indeed, how could we expect the poor building in remote areas
to even know there is building code. They put up what structures they
can and live to survive most of the time. In the cities, like many cities
right across Asia, right to the centre of Moscow, corruption is rife
in construction projects and there have been enough documented cases
of apartments collapsing right across the region following even small
shocks. Corruption isnt confined to Asia, the overbuilding and
flouting of controls in Spain is astonishing to see and no doubt their
turn for ecological disaster will come and they will be astonished
to discover that through greed and corruption they have devastated that
country. (Even now the water table is drying out and slowly a whole
European country is turning into a desert as the population grows exponentially
from immigration by people fleeing Africa and sun-worshipers who flee
That connectedness seems to be a huge blindspot for many.
New Orleans built in a Hurricane region has survived two hundred years
yes, but have they really no concept of global warming? Just because
Republicans live in total denial, it shouldnt mean that everyone
else should just switch off their brains. Statistically this has been
the warmest year for the world since measurements have been taken. Fly
over either of the icecaps and see for yourself how diminished they
are. That means that more fresh water is in the oceans and possibly,
just possibly, it may mean that the flow of the currents that keep our
climate stable if thats the word, are changing, making
our winters colder and summers hotter perhaps. There are many different
computer models for what might happen if the 'gulf stream' sinks or
changes course due to desalination.
If Hurricanes become more plentiful and stronger, changing the way Americans
build their homes might just be worth considering now, not later.
When you seen how their hundreds of thousands of homes have been
turned into chipboard one questions two things. One; why build everything
of chipboard? Why not build more durable homes, brick, stone, steel
come to mind. Two: Why isnt this a major priority in the reconstruction
plans. It isnt even on the agenda.
A case in point, I am about to buy a home built in 1912. It is made
of brick, it has the original floors, some of the original glass (you
can blame Hitler for the rest of it missing) and all it needs a decent
paint job and it will last another hundred years with regular maintenance.
My last house, a simple brick cottage, was built in 1789 and still stands
and will stand another hundred easy.
You could argue that England doesnt get hurricanes and there is
no comparison. It doesnt get the hot weather either so
not faced with extremes of course houses can last. Well, what sticks
in my mind from images from New Orleans is that brick church that withstood
the wind (the roof only blowing away). Of course Americans, being Americans
will not brook any criticism of their incredibly wasteful building methods,
their astonishing careless use of fuel for their SUVs and a history
that has quarter of the population moving house every five years or
so (thus perhaps in the social and mental fabric there is no desire
for permanence due to historical imperatives). But if they did apply
the science to building houses that they apply to designing ipod Nanos
(rather than Windows XP) and applied a new code to all houses built
in a hurricane zone perhaps more would survive. (I am not saying
it would be easy to survive a direct hit might as well make it
nuke proof too, but at least designed to keep the shell intact and let
the pressure escape somehow). I am not an architect, but hey perhaps
people in Louisiana and elsewhere should be thinking either we
live elsewhere or we learn how to build to last and survive? If you
love the place so much, why not build for the next generation too? (The
Perhaps those same designs in a rough and ready way could be made available
to people in Asia so that when they build a simple house, they can make
a survivable home, one that has a lighter roof that won't crush all
I was mentioning that the UK doesnt suffer from Hurricanes but
what it is prone too is flood and whether you live on the East Coast
(which is slowly sinking) or like me, right now, Portsmouth, it is entirely
at sea-level with no defences at all, not one sea wall. If the North
Sea rises just a few inches, many historic cities in the UK will go
with it, Portsmouth first. Liverpool, Hull, Boston, will go, even London,
the Thames barrier notwithstanding. So I am just as guilty for buying
blind here, trusting to fate that I wont end up living on the
first floor watching fish swim around my living room.
Disaster strikes when you least expect it. I have lived through an earthquake
in Cape Town over thirty years ago. That day all that happened to our
house was the windows fell out and the whole garden moved next door
(into their swimming pool Ha!). Fifty miles away in Ceres a whole town
was demolished killing many occupants. Bad luck for them but good luck
for the city. Had it struck Cape Town hundreds of thousands might have
perished. In Northern Pakistan and Kashmir they say the lucky ones survived
the quake, but that remains to be seen. There is a world wide shortage
of winter tents. They need 500,000 winter tents right now and getting
them to the remote regions will be hard. They need blankets, food for
three million people who are currently living in the open as the cold
weather approaches. Three million who suddenly have no crops stored,
no jobs, no income, no infrastructure and by the looks of it, little
leadership. Thats a real disaster on a biblical scale. This is
no time for compassion fatigue no time to worry about why they
have squandered their money on arms and bombs and give help in many
ways to help these people get through the next nine months. It will
You might even want to think about those gifts you were going to buy
for Christmas. Could be that you send money to the Red
Cross and a little card to your friends and loved ones instead
of a gift that tells them where your money has gone. The only people
who will suffer if you dont consume this Christmas will be the
Chinese who made the gee-gaws and they will learn a good lesson in economics.
(After all if they are so keen to embrace capitalism might as well give
them a Recession 101 lesson to remember).
To give go here: You will feel a lot better for it.
can give to the Pakistani Earthquake Relief effort here
© Sam North Oct 19th 2005
Sam North is the author of 'Diamonds - The
Rush of '72'
terrific piece of storytelling' Historical Novel Society Review
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