Having ‘done’ three earthquakes as an aid worker — Kalamata in Greece, Badakhshan in Afghanistan and the ’05 ‘quake here — I have something of a feel for how these disasters get handled at a number of levels. One of them being the media. The Haiti quake is a real monster, and the most recent estimates are that there are over 100,000 dead and who knows how many injured. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has a ramshackle government and nothing in the way of infrastructure that would enable it to cope with an event of this magnitude.
The world’s media likes nothing better than bad news, and Haiti, from a news desk point of view, was manna from heaven. Reporters were on the ground before the aid agencies and governments around the world had time to catch their breath. One global news agency even had its health correspondent, a qualified doctor, treating a new-born orphan with a head injury live on camera. Other footage was from camera phones and the social networking sites Facebook and Bebo had ‘missing persons’ pages up and running within hours of the event. Twitter became an information exchange for aid workers on the ground, carrying the coordinates for people trapped but alive. Little local coverage has been given to the response of the Edhi organisation, which has a branch in Cuba — but as coverage generally is rapidly falling away this is perhaps not surprising.
Outside of the disaster area the pundits were swiftly at work and as usual, there was more rubbish talked than common sense; some of it not only ill-informed but downright offensive. Of particular note was the response of the American right-wing media and at least one of the prominent Christian fundamentalist broadcasters — who in the US have considerable clout. As is usual there have been appeals for cash and relief goods, but according to Rush Limbaugh, the most popular radio talk show host and for many the spiritual leader of the Republican Party — we should not waste our time or money on the Haitians. Why? Apparently because those good Americans who give to support those in need, will have their money stolen by President Obama. How? By donating it to the American Red Cross, who might, just might, find a way of back-channeling it to some dark corner of the Obama administration. There was no substance to Limbaughs’ insinuations, all he was doing was seeking to demean Obama for his own political ends — which he did much to the satisfaction of his audience.
Consider now the comments of Pat Robertson, a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who was of the opinion that the Haitians had brought this on themselves because in the historical past they had made ‘a pact with the devil’ in order to rid themselves of the French, at that time the colonial power. The earthquake was God’s way of letting them know that he was not letting them get away with that one.
Haiti is quickly dropping down the news agenda. The electronic media has the attention-span of a demented cocker spaniel and within a week, Haiti will be history to be revisited for a six-month update, other stories permitting. We — my family — responded in the only way we could, and we gave money. Do I know if it will get there, our fifty pounds? No, and as I signed the cheques I thought of Limbaugh and Robertson and wondered to myself in an idle moment what I might do if I came across either of them trapped in a car after a crash and needing help. I came to no firm conclusion.