The recent 6.3 magnitude earthquake which has recently hit Christchurch is a disaster for the people who have died, for the people who have lost loved ones and for the people that have lost their homes. No one would doubt that any natural disaster is tragic for all of those involved.
However, the global reaction, at least in the west is interesting. I would argue that we have lost a certain degree of perspective here. Firstly, approximately 100 people have died and another 300 are missing, presumed dead. Last year a magnitude 7 earthquake hit Haiti and 316 000 people died, it hardly made the news. That is a death toll that is 1000 times worse, yet no one in the west really seemed to care. Let’s be clear, that is 1000 Haitians for every Kiwi, the scale is almost unimaginable.
In 2005 an earthquake in Kashmir killed 80 000 people and destroyed the homes of several hundred thousand of the World’s poorest people in the middle of winter. This one only made the news because the Taliban did a better job of helping the afflicted than the West and won the battle for hearts and minds. There was an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that killed almost 100,000 people that didn’t even make the news here. Who cares about 100,000 Chinese when there are 1.5 billion of them?
There is clearly an element of “people like us”. The perceived magnitude of any event is related to the proximity. A serious injury to us or family, the death of a neighbour, the untimely death of several strangers in our town, a few hundred people in another western society or a hundred thousand in Kashmir are all considered comparable tragedies. That is human nature, but surely we need to try and at least partially over come this bias if we are ever to live in a truly global society.
Another interesting perspective is the understanding of risk. In the West we are fortunate enough to have an understanding of what causes earthquakes and while we can’t predict exactly where and when they will occur we know which areas are prone to them. Yet we are still shocked when they happen. If you build a town on a fault zone, if you build a house on a flood plain, if you build a city on the top of a subsiding delta in the centre of hurricane alley, how can you be surprised when they suffer natural disasters? We understand all these things yet we choose to ignore them until the disaster strikes. That is not to say that we should not live in such places, but rather we shouldn’t be surprised when, from time to time the inevitable happens.
But none of this changes the magntitude of the event for the people of Christchurch who have lost their friends, family homes and businesses. It certainly makes you realise how fragile life is and how quickly our world can be torn apart.