15 November 2005

Wednesday October 19, 2005
Nature’s wrath
Well, this has been a banner year for disasters, hasn’t it? It’s taken in almost all the natural elements: water (tsunami), wind (hurricanes), earth (earthquake). God forbid, there will be a fire disaster next.
Added to that are the health epidemics. Bird flu, dengue, TB, malaria, polio and let’s not forget that HIV is still there, quietly spreading its way while our attention is focused elsewhere. And as if we can’t feel gloomy enough, there was the haze.
You can forgive people for thinking that all these disasters portend something bigger. When nature strikes with such force and fury as the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake, people revert to almost mythical beliefs about divine anger. Some people in Aceh thought the tsunami was visited upon them because there had been parties on the beach.
In the United States, evangelist Pat Robertson blamed Hurricane Katrina on the choice of Ellen deGeneres, an openly lesbian comedian, to host the Emmy awards. Apparently, the last time she hosted the Emmys was in 2001, which was of course the year of 9/11. Obviously one of the first things that fly out of the window in times of distress is logic. (God watches the Emmys?)
Even if God is sending a message of some sort, it sure looks like an equal-opportunity message. First, He sends a tsunami to the Muslims in Aceh and Buddhists in Thailand and Sri Lanka, not to mention several thousand tourists of varied faiths. Then a hurricane right into the heart of the Deep South of the United States, home mostly of the conservative Southern Baptists, ardent Bush supporters all. Then there was the earthquake in very Muslim, very poor Pakistan. Come to think of it, there have been several fire disasters in Paris where hostels and apartment buildings for poor African immigrants were burned down, causing loss of lives.
Which makes you wonder about all those who claim to know what God is up to by pointing to these disasters. So who’s actually right or wrong? Maybe God is just angry with everyone. Which wouldn’t be surprising considering how little we care for one another.
The thing about natural disasters is that we tend to assume that nothing can be done about them, that fate has decreed that they should happen and we should simply accept it. But does this have to be so? Japan has earthquakes all the time, some of them very serious as in the Kobe earthquake 10 years ago. But death tolls and damage are never on the scale of those we see in other countries. That’s mainly because people are well-informed about what to do in times of disaster, and rescue and relief services are well-prepared.
There is nothing natural about the fact that it is poor people who suffer most in disasters. Even in a wealthy country like the United States, we saw how the poorest suffered far greater hardship than the ones with average incomes. Simple things like being able to afford a car made all the difference between life and death.
In Turkey and most recently in Pakistan, the poorly built homes of the poor collapsed first. Relief was hampered by remoteness. Rich people don’t live in remote areas. Surely God isn’t discriminating against the poor.
If countries spent less on arms and more on the basic facilities for their people, surely they could do better for them when disaster strikes. If people respected others as human beings, they would not put them in hovels that are fire traps. Or leave them in villages that have no roads, which makes it impossible for rescue services to get through. It’s simply a matter of caring.
Ultimately the greatest disaster is poverty and inequality. That takes thousands of lives every day. But it’s not big news. It doesn’t give us spectacular photos of grief-stricken people crying over the children. Women and children who can’t read don’t make interesting photographs. The people in Pakistan who are suffering now from the effects of the earthquake were not in good shape before. They’ve gone from having very little to having nothing. The question is, do we now bring them up to the same levels of abject poverty as before, or better?
Some good did come out of the tsunami, at least in Aceh where a peace agreement has been brokered. The same hasn’t happened in north-east Sri Lanka. Now we see the man-made disaster of discrimination and oppression in the southern part of our neighbour expanding every day. Nobody ever learns, that’s the true tragedy of it all.