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.


About Author

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.

  • Resultsbob

    Tom: Excellent! A reminder that is well worthwhile. I got a note from UNICEF yesterday pleading for funds in the context of the emergency in Japan, but noting in the middle of their note that the Japanese had not asked UNICEF for any money.

    On the other hand, in addition to the crises you note, and perhaps covering all of them and the more comprehensive tragedy of the AIDS crisis, there is the struggle in Washington, D.C., to determine whether deciding on a budget is a phony exercise of cutting anything in the budget, or making cuts that do not cause more serious damage. As I think you yourself have noted in past columns, Americans think US foreign aid amounts to 25% of our budget. Instead, less than 1% of it is devoted to poverty relief and global health. Cutting less than 1% of our budget will not make a meaningful dent in our deficit or the national debt. However, it will ensure that people will die. For instance, the House bill cuts the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria by 45% – $450 million. In doing so, it will take 400,000 human beings with AIDS off of medicine, it will prevent 370,000 people from getting a TB exam and treatment, and it will prevent more than 50,000 pregnant women with HIV from getting the drugs that will prevent them from passing HIV to their babies. Instead, they will get a death sentence. We can do better. For instance, why not cut the millions of military money to sponsor race cars as an advertisement? Wouldn’t that be easy to cut, with no lives lost. (Possibly some saved.)

  • Terry

    Grinding catastrophes….important phrase to remember as readers and tv watchers are distracted by the latest displays of global agony. Good reminder of how news is put in front of us and manipulates our concerns.

  • Matthew

    I’m curious as to why you call out Niger and Mali and then cite a global statistic for dying children? Mali and Niger have a combined population of around 21 million. 22000 children a day works out to 8,030,000 children a year. The largest single proportion comes from India (21%). The next largest comes from Nigeria (10%), which is a different country from Niger.

    • Hi Matthew,
      Sorry I didn’t make that clear. The 22,000 child deaths per year (most of them, arguably, due to poverty at least as a strong indirect cause) is a global total — which is indeed 8 million per year. I mentioned Niger and Mali as examples of very poor countries where a higher proportion of families live in extreme poverty.