In Myanmar, also known as Burma, perhaps more than 100,000 people are dead from a hurricane (called ‘cyclones’ when they hit Asia) that hit the Irrawaddy delta Saturday May 3rd. A million people have been driven from their homes, as the people lack safe water and basic needs. In reading through various news reports it’s sad to hear about families who have lost children, don’t know where their loved ones are, or who are struggling to cope with having lost everything. Burma’s government, a dictatorial junta, doesn’t seem to know how to respond, but most of the opposition now says that the focus should be on helping the people, not only politics. Slowly, aid and UN workers are trickling in, pressure is on the government to resist limiting aid.
In 2005 the storm Katrina hit the US, and people were horrified by conditions in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. While some of the stories now appear exaggerated, there were real cases of both death from flooding, and lawlessness after the storm. Aid was slow in coming, and to this day many victims of Katrina find their lives forever changed, unable to go back to the world they used to know. And despite having received considerable attention for a couple months, the American people have moved on, leaving the victims to try to cope with what was a life altering, devastating storm.
Yet I’m struck by the comparison of Katrina to Nargis — a comparison made by some meteorologists as they look at the Irrawaddy delta compared to the Mississippi delta in Louisiana. What if we were hit by a storm that killed 100,000 and left a million people homeless? I don’t think people quite comprehend the extent of the loss in Myanmar — it’s just a country with a funny name, and they live in thatched homes that can’t stand up to a storm anyway. So the Myanmar storm takes a backseat to American electoral politics, fears of oil potentially hitting $200 a barrel within two years, and the latest US – Iranian saber rattling.
When Katrina hit, it was the main story not only here, but world wide. Americans even wanted foreigners to help aid the victims, noting that it’s only fair we get aid when hit, since we give aid. But we had the resources to, after some initial missteps, go down in full force, relocate people, set up temporary housing, and feed anyone left homeless. The problems in the aftermath have been first world problems. People being forced to pay back some of what they got because they were allegedly overpaid, poor people, predominately black, not being able to move back because neighborhoods are being rebuilt more luxurious than before. In a real sense, Katrina was a minor disaster, with very limited death and destruction. Less than 2000 died, and massive resources prevented disease and starvation in the region.
Katrina vs. Nargis is, in a sense, symbolic of the differences between the first and third worlds. While we both can be hit by natural disasters, we’ve created conditions where the damage is limited, we can afford levees, structures to withstand storms, and we can transport aid and assistance quickly. And while the impact of Katrina was real and devastating (see my blog from September 1 and 2, 2005), the magnitude of suffering and destruction from Nargis is greater by perhaps 50 fold. Aid will poor in, Myanmar government willing, but nothing will remake the families and the lives of those who were affected. The number is so great and the country so distant, that we see it as a statistic.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? The third world is full of statistics, sad stories, but things distant from our direct experience. It’s easy to disengage, to simply turn the page from the international news to the sports section, and not think about what this means. Perhaps we’re also pushed to disengage because we can’t do much about it — it’s sad, but how can I help Burma? Write a check to aid agency? OK, but that seems about it.
Think another level though: the people dying in Burma (Myanmar) are in global terms among the poorest of the poor. Clearly relatively wealthy folk died too, but in general, those most poor suffered the greatest. In Katrina, the people hit hardest were also the poor. Perhaps they are relatively well off compared to the average family in the Irrawaddy delta, but compared to the rest of the country, they were predominately black and living on little money. Simply, if you’re poor not only are you less able to care for your family and secure a stable future, but you’re also more prone to suffer when nature strikes, or when humans launch wars (rich Iraqis send their families to other countries; the poor cannot). In a world of wealth and opulence, so concentrated in the hands of a few, it seems fundamentally wrong that so many live in such poverty, and there is little we can do to alter that. I don’t know what to do about it; I certainly am myself one of those few who enjoy privilege and luxury, as are most of us in the US, even those who by American standards are not rich. And clearly wealth does not equate to happiness, stressed out wealthy Americans may be more removed from family, friends, and community than citizens of a poor Myanmar village. Indeed, the poor may often being living happy, contented lives compared to the isolated stressed out wealthy westerners.
Yet that’s little solace — and could be a very convenient rationalization for doing nothing — when one thinks about up to 100,000 dead, and people suffering intensely. It’s the world we have now at the start of the 21st century. I guess all one can do is hope that by the end of the century, things aren’t so warped. And, of course, we can try to think of ways to make that happen. The first step is to actually acknowledge the problem, take it seriously, connect with the people who are suffering in our hearts, and really think of it as something important, real, and devastating — not just a statistic that we can easily shake our heads at, and then go on eating dinner.