Disaster in Japan … and Haiti, Pakistan, Congo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Mali

We are all focused on the disaster in Japan right now, as we should be.

But what about the other, bigger disasters?

The massive earthquake, tsunami and current concern about damage to a Japanese nuclear power plant are the top news stories today. The quake was huge, the fifth largest in the last century. President Obama said today the U.S. is “marshaling forces” to help Japan deal with the catastrophe.

Local relief organizations like World Vision and Mercy Corps have put the Japanese quake-tsunami on the “front page” of their websites even though it is unlikely either organization will be doing much in response. I talked to both organizations and they are standing by ready to help, but both said it is possible they will not be needed.

Japan can largely take care of itself. World Vision and Mercy Corps take care of those who can’t.

One of the ways the media tries to get your attention to overseas disasters is to make the local connection. In this case, the tsunami made that easy because it eventually became a local story. While some American news outlets did overplay some relatively minor local impacts — “fifteen pleasure craft were ripped from their moorings” — most like the New York Times made it clear that Japan has suffered the worst.

This natural tendency for the media to “localize” tragedies overseas is, I think, an honest attempt to get us to pay attention. But it can also distract us from the real story.

Another habit we have that can distort reality is our tendency to focus only on the immediate disaster news and ignore old crises, or slowly unfolding crises, or disasters that just sit there being disastrous.

I don’t mean at all to diminish the tragedy in Japan, but it’s a wealthy country and is more likely to recover fairly quickly from this catastrophe. The conflict in Libya is a disaster of another type, but we are paying attention there due to the fact that war is fairly newsworthy.

So here are five other ongoing disasters that we should not forget while focused on the current news:

Joy Portella at Mercy Corps and Amy Parodi at World Vision both said that these kind of immediate catastrophes and natural disasters serve as reminders of how fragile life is, and of the potential for human suffering on a vast scale. People respond with compassion and concern to such events.

At the same time, Parodi and Portella said, it is often difficult to get the public’s attention to the chronic, grinding — and often deadly — catastrophes that are playing out on a daily basis around the world.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.