The International Writers Magazine
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A Year of Disasters
Sam North

Is the world experiencing compassion fatigue?

Give to the Red Cross now

Compassion means you don’t examine the situation too closely, you give help without asking too many questions. You give because you, heaven forbid, wouldn’t 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 NGO’s 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 water’s 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 didn’t 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 Bush’s 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 aren’t 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 weren’t 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 don’t 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 it’s people clear rubble at a moments notice doesn’t 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 won’t be heeded.

Disaster doesn’t 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 year’s 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 isn’t 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 northern Europe.
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 shouldn’t 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 that’s 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 thousand’s 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 isn’t this a major priority in the reconstruction plans. It isn’t 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 doesn’t get hurricanes and there is no comparison. It doesn’t 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 SUV’s 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 Nano’s (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 European model)
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 beneath it.

I was mentioning that the UK doesn’t 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 won’t 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. That’s 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 be hard.

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 don’t 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.
*You 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'
Available from 'a terrific piece of storytelling' Historical Novel Society Review

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