Sunday, January 17, 2010

Contextualizing the Haitian Death Toll

The images and news coming out of Haiti continue to be just simply devastating. The Telegraph is reporting that the death toll will likely rise to 200,000 with a full accounting of both those killed by the earthquake itself, and its aftermath. Clean water is increasingly difficult to find and the probability of rampant disease is rapidly approaching 1. To put the numbers into a bit of recent context, the massive tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004 killed around 225,000 in a population basin much, much greater than Haiti's 9 million. By comparison, if the 9/11 attacks had a lethality equal to that of this quake, some 184,000 New York residents would have perished in the attacks.

It also is worth noting that, as Mike Davis argued in the case of famines in the 19th century, natural disaster death tolls are the result not of the "natural" severity of the event as much as of the man-made conditions leading into the event and in the response. Haiti has been victimized by a global power distribution that was punitive towards black liberation from day one, that collaborated with the worst kind of local tyrannies, and that produced its underdevelopment. Unfortunately, the response to the quake is unlikely to change any of these structural realities, but rather will reinforce a form of pornography of poverty that has an immediacy on the heartstrings, and little more.