Saturday, January 16, 2010

A few quick thoughts on the tragedy unfolding in Haiti:

The scale of this disaster is just devastating. Casualty estimates at this point are more guesswork than anything, but I'm afraid that the initial estimate of 45,000 - 50,000 dead made by the American Red Cross - reported several days ago - may be far too low. It seems like agencies are now refraining from publicly making estimates. This is smart, since there is no way to make an informed approximation given the current lack of information. A more pessimistic take is that agencies aren't releasing their internal estimates because the numbers are so high as to be demoralizing. I don't know which is the case, but I certainly hope the pessimists aren't accurate.

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that there are usually more indirect than direct deaths in disasters. In other words, the number of people who die in the weeks and months following a disaster from disease and malnutrition is generally much larger than the number of people who die from trauma wounds in the first few days. Sadly, we are now hitting the point where those who are trapped in the rubble or were wounded in the initial quake are either getting the medical attention they need or are dying. Consequently, the focus of aid has to shift from search-and-rescue operations to addressing the over-arching public health dangers - water, sanitation, disease, and malnutrition. Any delay could dramatically increase the number of indirect deaths, which are predominately preventable.

Finally, it's not often that I find myself agreeing with David Brooks, but he is partially correct in his column. Brooks is right that the devastation and death we are seeing isn't solely a result of the earthquake. The infrastructure in Haiti was in shambles before Tuesday, and thus was unable to respond to a natural disaster. By infrastructure I mean not only classic physical infrastructure - roads and buildings - but also the public health systems and government institutions. As Brooks says,

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.
This, however, is the extent of my agreement with Brooks. I don't think we can attribute all, or even most, of Haiti's underdevelopment to some ill-defined "culture." But his basic point holds true - earthquakes in the 21st century do not, by themselves, cause mass-casualty disasters. It is only when they strike impoverished or poorly-governed places that people die in large numbers, and unfortunately Haiti illustrates this principle.

Update: Anne Applebaum at Slate has a great piece about the underlying dynamics in Haiti that turned this earthquake into a catastrophe.

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