iPhone hell in the Frankenstorm of the Century
One criticism frequently levelled against the media is that we habitually devote acres of space to disasters involving ourselves and other first world nations and relegate bigger catastrophes in the developing world to a couple of paragraphs on page 44.
It is true that this happens but I don’t regard it as particularly evil. It is no different from the fact that a television station in Guatemala will run big on an earthquake in nearby Nicaragua yet ignore or downplay something much worse which happened in Australia or Indonesia or Thailand. Proximity and familiarity motivate these news judgments. I doubt the Queensland floods or the Victorian bushfires were on the front page of many newspapers in Africa.
The coverage of Hurricane Sandy in Australia this week has been massive, and understandably so, as we have a close relationship with America, many of us have holidayed there, many of us have lived or do live there.
That said, there have been some aspects of the coverage – and the behaviour of some of those affected by the disaster – which have shone a light on the lack of proportionality which afflicts our sense of what constitutes a problem in the first world. It has also underscored the gulf between quality of life in the first world and the developing world, which unless you are completely heartless is something worth reflecting upon when we have those recurring debates about the size of our foreign aid budget.
Sandy is a disaster by every measure – a hefty $50 billion damage bill, a sizeable death toll of 55 at last count in the US and Canada. It is also something of a case study in how to handle a crisis, world’s best practice in terms of anticipating the storm, preparing for it, and dealing with its impact and aftermath. One fact which has been sadly glossed over in the American-dominated news feeds is that the storm actually killed more people in the Caribbean than it did in the US, 71 at last count, 54 of them in the cursed island nation of Haiti alone.
This storm was even stronger by the time it smashed into the east coast of the United States, into the path of more homes and more people, but it still killed fewer people in the US than it did during its genesis down south in the Caribbean islands.
The chief reason is the technology gap between the first world and the developing world. Every feature of the storm’s behaviour was predicted accurately by meteorologists in the US, and television, news websites and social media were all used to get the message out to the community to batten down or flee. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent much of the past week tweeting the latest on Sandy’s imminent arrival and his tweets were re-tweeted tens of thousands of times.
When all hell broke loose in Haiti needless to say people weren’t using their iPhone 4s or their tablets to keep up to speed with the latest developments.
None of this is meant to sound like America-bashing, I love and adore the place and its people, but aside from setting a new standard for disaster management this storm has also set a new benchmark for hyperbole. As far as I can tell this storm is at least the third in the past decade which has been labelled the “storm of the century”, not to mention the laughably silly new term “Frankenstorm” to describe its bolt-necked evil. And while I have nothing but sympathy for the people who have lost loved ones or sustained injuries or lost their homes, some of the commentary has been very much in the order of first world problems. I particularly enjoyed the comments in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal from a Manhattan art curator who put out a plaintive message on Facebook about her sense of isolation with the power supply out.
“My phone battery is out and I’d love to charge it,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I feel so disconnected. I’m trying to read only reliable tweets.”
Life goes on I guess. Especially if that is as hard as life gets.
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