Invisible Earthquakes

Not long ago I was writing about the living planet, referring to a couple of minor earthquakes here, but natural disasters happen everywhere. The cyclone in Myanmar and earthquake in China have been very much in the news, and the coverage has been gripping, as well as thought-provoking.

Watching the news on BBC and CNN, the situation in China seems so much worse and real, but it isn’t. Estimates are that more than twice as many people have died in Myanmar, and given the government’s resistance to international relief aid, surely the suffering there is much greater, and the eventual death toll will be higher still. But that same unwillingness to accept foreign intervention means that there is relatively little reporting, so what I’m sure is widespread suffering is nearly invisible.

From China, on the other hand, we see video shot from cell phones — people dazed and dust-covered, others scrambling to dig out the injured — taken just seconds afterwards, and it makes it real. Watching that, I felt what it must be like to be in the middle of a real disaster, everything normal one minute and then overwhelming and chaotic the next.

CNN’s coverage included an interview with a representative from one of the big international relief organizations making the predictable lament that it’s easy to mobilize support to treat victims of these disasters, but much harder to do things that will mitigate the suffering that happens all over the world, everyday. It’s not exactly an original thought, the idea that images of suffering move us more than statistics. But its implications are profound, especially for organizations such as ours.

In my experience, people aren’t unfeeling, nor are they stingy. When moved by compassion they can be extraordinarily generous, even heroic. It’s just that human nature seems to bias us to act upon what is visible, especially when it’s concentrated in one place and time. So we end up mostly reacting to things that have already happened, rather than trying to prevent suffering in the first place. And if it’s spread out in time and place, and so not filmed on video, we may not hear the call to do anything.

Today I saw a statistic that called out to me. Our social workers can authorize food baskets for families going through particularly difficult times, say if a parent has an accident or illness and therefore can’t work. Generally there isn’t much savings to fall back on. Last month the number of authorized food baskets was almost double what we normally expect, and it seems to be part of an upward trend.

It’s not an earthquake, and it’s not on the news, but something is happening, and people are suffering because of it.

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