The magnitude 7 earthquake that recently devastated Haiti has caused, and continues to do so, unimaginable human suffering. It brings into focus the need for the international global community to take measures to prepare for future emergencies. Multi-lateral donors, national governments, aid agencies and the press have pulled their efforts together in an admirable way. However, there have been criticisms of the way the relief effort has been coordinated, and there are always lessons to be learnt.
In terms of responding to, fundraising for, reporting on, and planning for improved disaster relief efforts recent research undertaken by the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution (ELSE) outlines how responses can be improved, especially in light of the international effort taking place in Haiti.
Christopher Olivola, a researcher from University College London and ELSE, along with Namika Sagara from Duke University, have underlined a fundamental flaw in our response to those international crisis that carry a high death toll. For instance, they state “In a country, such as the UK, which is unused to mass deaths, a medium-scale disaster will seem really shocking, but the shock value will quickly start to blur as the numbers increase so that large-scale events will seem indistinguishable. However, in a country where mass deaths are more common, a medium-scale disaster may seem less shocking but people will be more sensitive to differences in magnitude between large-scale events because they have observed many more of them.”
This work attempts to explain why we find large death tolls, such as the one in Haiti, so difficult to fully grasp, and why a disaster involving thousands of victims tends to produce a bigger response than one that impacts on hundreds of thousands of people. As a result, it is common “As the death toll increases, each additional death seems less shocking, so that, for example, we appear to care less about the last thousand people to die in a large-scale disaster than the first thousand fatalities.” This type of behavior clearly has huge implications on how disasters are responded to, implying that when the death toll becomes so high, the level of suffering is difficult to comprehend, and we appear ‘de-sensitized’ to it.
At times, we are all guilty of feeling detached from the news and the grave implications of what we here. How we react to fatalities is largely dependent on personal history. The majority of us have very little experience dealing with large numbers of human losses and this shapes how we perceive such events.
Nevertheless, it might be deemed insensitive to criticize the relief effort in Haiti in such ‘broad brush’ terms. The ongoing commitment of so many individuals working in unimaginable circumstances is truly inspiring.
There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt, and the ELSE research can add to the lesson learning exercise. Yet, there is also a need to take positive’s from the way people from all over the world have assisted the relief effort, raised funds and shown true compassion to the people of Haiti.