Our disasters and theirs

So here we are again: Watching scenes of unimaginable devastation, of people crying out “Help us!” (or in this case, “Amwe!“) while the world watches and waits for rescuers to arrive. And again, we are told over and over that while the disaster may be natural, poverty is to blame for the scope of the disaster — in New Orleans, people couldn’t afford cars to escape the water, in Port-au-Prince people couldn’t afford reinforced concrete to stand up to a 7-magnitude quake.

What’s missing, so far at least, is outrage at this. There has been no Jack Cafferty moment, no news reporters looking at the horrors and wondering how, in our modern world, this can still happen.

I know the reason, of course. The cry during Katrina was “How can this happen in the United States?” and, of course, Haiti isn’t in the United States. It’s in the Third World, where, presumably, in the American mind this sort of stuff is acceptable — the corollary of “How can this happen here?” of course, is “This is supposed to happen there!” But it’s still odd when you think about it that compassion, at least of the “We should prevent this” type as opposed to the “We should send $20 to the Red Cross” type, stops at national borders, especially when you consider that Port-au-Prince is only slightly further from my home in Brooklyn than New Orleans is — not to mention that there are way more Haitians in my immediate neighborhood than Louisianans.

Which brings me to the other media omission: Despite all the focus on Haiti’s crushing poverty, I haven’t yet seen many reporters wondering how it got to be that way. It’s a complicated historical issue, obviously, but no one (outside of Canada, anyway) has even asked the question — not even bringing in a Haiti development expert (and lord knows there are plenty) to explain why it is that the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is relatively richer and more resilient to disasters than its neighbor to the west. The closest I’ve seen so far is a brief aside in the ABC News article linked above, citing Cuba for its “very good emergency management infrastructure,” without investigating why that might be the case.

Now, maybe it’s just too early for the media to turn its attention to this topic — maybe by the weekend, we’ll have tons of articles exploring Haitian history and North-South economic relations and racism and the differing features of Spanish and French colonialism. But somehow I’m not holding my breath.

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