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.

Meanwhile, in Haiti… Photo: Getty Images

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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48 comments

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    • iansand says:

      06:14am | 02/11/12

      I liked Frankenstorm.  As this was the result of the joining of a tropical hurricane and an Arctic winter storm it seemed particularly appropriate.

    • Nathan says:

      06:24am | 02/11/12

      Made me sick that people are rallying donations for the one of the wealthiest cities in the world who lets face it where only missing electricity and running water. What happened else where was far worse and its a hell of allot harder for those in Haiti and Cuba to get the support they. Charity for NY city your having a laugh.

    • marley says:

      06:54am | 02/11/12

      @Nathan - why not?  we helped out Brisbane, didn’t we?  I don’t see the difference at all.

    • Michael says:

      07:07am | 02/11/12

      There’s probably a pill you can take to stop other people’s opinions making you feel so unwell. Oxy-something or other i think it’s called…

      Wealthy cities still have people in them that need help when a disaster strikes.

    • TimB says:

      07:25am | 02/11/12

      I vaguely recall there being donations for Haiti too.

    • Nathan says:

      07:30am | 02/11/12

      @marley
      Americans can look after there own. Calling for overseas contributions i see as wrong. If Brisbane was receiving charity from OS i would see that as wrong particually when Brazil was having natural disasters at the same time. I firmly believe that we shoudn’t take charity when others are in far more need

    • marley says:

      07:56am | 02/11/12

      @Nathan - sorry, I haven’t seen any requests from the Americans for overseas donations (except that they’ve asked Canadian power companies to send technicians to help restore the grid - which is fair enough, since both countries use it). 

      I’ve seen plenty of requests from Americans for help and donations from other Americans, just as was the case here with Yasi.  I just haven’t seen them asking anyone for outside help.

    • jaki says:

      07:58am | 02/11/12

      @ Nathan
      Donating is optional, you know. If people want to donate to one cause over another it’s their choice, not yours.

    • fml says:

      08:09am | 02/11/12

      Why should we pay for them, we have homeless and pensioners that are going hungry and without shelter are walking through barbed wire for 20 km’s a day just to buy milk and bread they cannot afford. We should be looking after our own first.

    • Jeremy says:

      08:43am | 02/11/12

      Americans actually gave quite a lot of money to QLD after the floods. There is also the difference that if a country like Australia or the States has an expensive disaster, any donated funds can be quickly and efficiently used by the existing disaster-response infrastructure. Somewhere like Haiti it’s worse than useless shoving money at them because they have no way to spend it, or distribute it. That requires a whole different type of response, hence Western governments chipped in to send the UN and other ground -military and humanitarian- forces there to regain order and start rebuilding.

    • Kika says:

      08:53am | 02/11/12

      America has a pretty sub standard welfare system. Think about not only the people who have lost their homes, but the homeless who have been affected, or the people who will lose everything and end up living on food stamps because they weren’t properly insured or will lose their businesses. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

    • Michael says:

      09:00am | 02/11/12

      FML, you are human, so are the needy, we are helping our own by helping other humans.

    • fml says:

      09:55am | 02/11/12

      Michael,

      I agree with you smile

    • Economist says:

      11:10am | 02/11/12

      Since when do we have to limit our compassion and generosity. Sure we constantly make choices regarding financial donations and time for all victims of disasters, crimes, disease, famine, but to espouse views that one group doesn’t deserve it is grinchy. Simply don’t give your money/time if you don’t want to, but don’t dictate to others their choices unless the money is in support of terrorism, crime, or designed to limit the legitimate choices of others.

    • Al says:

      11:35am | 02/11/12

      Economist re “Since when do we have to limit our compassion and generosity.”
      That is a very easy question to answer, since the time the human race came into existence.
      The simple reason for this is that:
      1) There are limited resources and those resources ‘should’ be distributed to where they will do the most good.
      2) There are many people who believe they should receive something when there has been no serious loss or risk to themselves and receiving it, chewing up resources that could be used to help those who actualy need it.
      3) We (Australia) are NOT responsible for providing a global welfare net for those countries who don’t. If they want us to take on this responsibility then pay us some of your taxes.
      4) It should always be the individuals choice (as opposed to being imposed by government via, say, a levey) and there are many selfish and self centred people who will choose not to donate.
      Or even people with other obligations who can’t afford it and as such need to limit there generosity or risk falling into needing welfare themselves.

    • Economist says:

      12:26pm | 02/11/12

      Al I thought that resource allocation would have been implied in by the use of the word ‘choices’. If your concern is about government welfare this can be returned in kind. For example the Howard Government pledge to donate $1B to Indonesia from the tsunami raised our standing the country with many. Australian companies benefited from rebuilding contracts. The local Indonesian community was appreciative. I have no problem with the government giving a few billion in aid. Governments constantly make choices and prioritise their budget as HH do. If you don’t like it write to them and complain and don’t vote for them.

    • Al says:

      12:36pm | 02/11/12

      Economist - and who would you suggest I vote for, there is no party (other than possibly the sex party) that doesn’t want the Individual to be responsible for their own choices rather than government choosing what to do ‘for their own good’?
      Possibly I should have changed the order of my points as I believe point 3 and 4 are more important.

    • Al says:

      12:42pm | 02/11/12

      Economist, a correction:
      there is no party (or most Independnents) (other than possibly the sex party) that DOES want the Individual to be responsible for their own choices rather than government choosing what to do ‘for their own good’?

    • marley says:

      01:00pm | 02/11/12

      Well, I still want to know, have the Americans actually asked for help? I haven’t seen anything in that vein.

    • TracyH says:

      06:41am | 02/11/12

      The damage in developing countries is worse because of their building construction, not just a lack of technology. Obviously developed nations would fare better with strict building codes. You make it sound as if it was merely weather forecasts accessible immediately.

    • Mahhrat says:

      06:58am | 02/11/12

      Guiliani always said he was going to clean the streets.  Didn’t think he was going to be quite so serious about it, though.

    • Reg Whiteman says:

      07:10am | 02/11/12

      The whole thing has bored me immensely.

      They had a storm, well … so what? From all the news reports I’ve heard, it didn’t cross the Canadian border as I’ve heard nothing about super-brave Canadians enduring the greatest disaster since Noah loaded the ark and set sail.

      If sitting at home in the dark for a day or two with a dead or dying i-phone battery counts as “bravery” then I should get the George Cross. In January 2009 a bushfire came within a kilometre of my place and the power went out. In October 2010 we had a big flood and I had to evacuate overnight and there was no power for two days. I had to wade through a foot of water to load my demented mother and geriatric Labrador into the car and make good my escape - and not even a letter from the Queen, let alone a medal, did I receive!

      Neither of these disasters rated a moment on CNN or Fox News; not even a mention in the New York Times or Washington Post. I didn’t even get interviewed by the Australian media - though the events were duly noted in The Border Mail.

      I think our Government should learn from this American experience and consider installing “emergency re-charge centres” throughout the country. Perhaps a task-force of Public Servants to research the matter, fly to the US on a “fact finding” mission and then take a year or two to produce a green paper, a white paper, and then a full report to be tabled in Parliament. Perhaps Kevin Rudd should be on the first plane so that he can get there before the waters recede and he can wade around in a suit with his trouser legs rolled up? He can tell the Yanks, “My name is Kevin, and I’m here to help.”

      Other than that, I’ll be glad when the whole thing is off the news cycle.

    • marley says:

      08:05am | 02/11/12

      @Reg Whiteman - 80 or so people died in that storm in the US.  Sorry that you find that loss of life so boring.

      And yes, the storm certainly did cross the border - 2 Canadians died and about 200,000 lost power for up to a day.  Sorry, I know that bores you too.

      But you’re right, the Aussie government could learn a thing or two.  The Americans (and Canadians) did a helluva lot better job than the Queensland government of getting advance warnings out, having people evacuated or thoroughly prepared for the storm, and reducing lives lost in spit of the storm hitting one of the most densely populated areas of America.  But I guess you’d find the lessons the Americans applied to prevent greater loss of life boring as well.

    • iansand says:

      08:44am | 02/11/12

      FWIW, I am prepared to call you a hero if it makes you a bit less grumpy.

      By the way, the Qld floods made it to mainstream TV news in the USA.  I was there.

    • Reg Whiteman says:

      09:20am | 02/11/12

      Marley

      There was plenty of warning for the Brisbane floods and the following cyclone. It was the unexpected failure of a dam that caused most of the fatalities. The response of the Qld Government was timely, efficient and professional - but you can’t prepare for everything.

      Compare the Queensland disasters with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans - I think we did a much better job - and we cleaned up in a matter for weeks. New Orleans is still a shambles in some areas seven years later.

      So 80 people died in the storm. Elsewhere in the US, at least 200 died of gunshot wounds. Eighty is about an average week’s body count in Chicago or Los Angeles.

      I don’t think we have much to learn from our US cousins. And hearing about it still bores me.

    • marley says:

      10:02am | 02/11/12

      @Reg - ahh, the dam didn’t fail - the plan the dam engineers were working with failed.  That is a failure of preparation, not infrastructure. And yes, it could have been predicted if the dam managers had listened to the weather forecasts.  Anyway,  the dam had nothing to do with the deaths in the Lockyer Valley, which was also caught unawares.

      The Americans learned from their mistakes in New Orleans.  It is to be hoped that Australian officialdom does not share your complacency, and learns from both its own mistakes and the American successes.

    • Jeremy says:

      10:06am | 02/11/12

      Reg Whiteman - LA and Chicago both have murder rates at about 6 per week.
      But please don’t let that get in the way of you denigrating the loss of lives in the storm.

    • marley says:

      10:12am | 02/11/12

      Oh, and Reg, if you’re going to refer to American crime figures, at least try to invent credible ones.

    • Reg Whiteman says:

      11:55am | 02/11/12

      Last Saturday 6 people were killed and 36 wounded in Chicago. So far this year the Chicago body count of dead and injured exceeds 3,000. This is from “The Daily Beast” of July 2012:“The nation averages 87 gun deaths each day as a function of gun violence, with an average of 183 injured, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Centers for Disease Control.” ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/chicago-homicide-record-n_n_1817687.html )

      The FBI National Data reports that there were around 250 forcible rapes every day in 2010.

      On average, since the storm started a week ago, there have been about 400 gun deaths/murders, another 2,500 with gunshot wounds and about 1,750 forcible rapes in the USA. The US Department of Justice and the FBI can’t both be wrong.

      When was John Lennon was assassinated a memorial service was held in Central Park NYC to mourn his passing; everyone sang “Imagine” and prayed for peace. Two people were shot at the service.

      Back in 1980 a Japanese film crew made a documentary called “The Killing of America” which was an expose of the gun violence there. It is still banned in the USA.

      The only thing incredible about the American murder rate is that it actually happens and is officially reported. To put things into perspective: more Americans have been gunned down on Americans streets since 1960 than Australia has lost in all our wars since Federation. The USA has a Gallipoli equivalent about every 6 months. Another 80…hmmmm…just a worse-than-average weekend in the land of the free and home of the brave. Now what were you saying about “credibility”?

    • marley says:

      02:05pm | 02/11/12

      @Reg - to quote you, “Elsewhere in the US, at least 200 died of gunshot wounds.” 

      Sandy hit on late Monday and lasted just over a day.  So, extrapolating your figures, that would mean that the number of people shot to death annually in the US would be in the neighbourhood of 70,000 persons.  The real figure is under 15,000 for all murders committed, and under 10,000 for firearms murders. 

      Now if you add in suicides, which you didn’t but the HuffPost did, the figure is higher- about 15,000 people a year commit suicide by firearms.  That’s still nowhere near 70,000 a year, and in any case the American suicide rate is about the same as ours.  We just choose other methods to top ourselves.  So let’s go back to the original point - that around 15,000 people a year are murdered in the US - which is not 200 a day or even 87 a day.

      “Eighty is about an average week’s body count in Chicago or Los Angeles.”  In 2011, there were 297 murders in Los Angeles, or about 6 per week;  there were 431 murders in Chicago, or about 8 per week.  Both figures are a far cry from your imaginary 80.  And those figures are from the FBI, by the way.

      As for rapes, umm, who’s talking about rapes? Nice try to sidestep the point that your figures on murders in general and gun murders in particular were pulled out of your hat.

      So, yeah, I say you and your homicide figures are a tad short on the credibility.

    • Rita says:

      02:11pm | 02/11/12

      Marley - Australia’s cyclone warning system is world class. 
      During the lead up to cyclone Yasi, the warning network was as close to perfect as it possibly could be.  Which is probably half the reason why there was only 1 casualty as a by product of the cyclone, with a man accidentally gassing himself with the fumes from his generator, long after the cyclone had passed.
      Most of the cardwell/tully region evacuated if they wanted to, or were able to. 
      I don’t think that our warning system has anything at all to be ashamed of.  I also think that our early preparation system is a key to why we weather cyclones so well - as soon as the weather warms, we stockpile food that keeps well, batteries etc.

    • marley says:

      02:52pm | 02/11/12

      @Rita - I agree entirely with all with your points about Yasi (Brisbane was a slightly different matter).  But my point really was that the American system worked well for a far more heavily populated region, and there are always lessons we could learn.  The assumption that their experience has nothing to offer us just seems to me to be utterly wrong-headed.

    • Curious says:

      07:11am | 02/11/12

      How did the art curator manage to post on Facebook if she couldn’t re-charge her phone?

    • Jeremy says:

      08:39am | 02/11/12

      Built in retinal HUD?
      I feel most bad for the poor person in Toronto killed by random flying debris from the storm. That’s gotta be some bad luck being killed by a storm that didn’t even hit your country.

    • marley says:

      09:14am | 02/11/12

      @Jeremy - ahh, the storm did hit Canada - not as hard as the US, but it did knock out the power supplies over a pretty big area.  There was a second death there - of a guy working on a downed power line who was electrocuted.

    • Rose says:

      07:53am | 02/11/12

      I find it so offensive that we ignore the plight of others and only concentrate on our own when disaster hits. The commentary about the Bali bombings often refers to the 88 deaths, when in fact over 300 people died, it’s just that most weren’t Australian. These storms are all about the US, bugger Haiti and Cuba, and when Brisbane suffered the floods, we pretty much ignored Brazil.
      I don’t see why it should be considered OK to ignore the plight of millions just because they are somehow less important to us.  I think it actually causes more unrest in the world, a greater chance of making people from less developed countries hate us, when we treat them as lesser beings.
      The world is now to small to be ignoring the chunks that we do, we need to be less ignorant and more informed about the plight of developing nations.

    • Jeremy says:

      10:15am | 02/11/12

      Brazil already receives a lot of regular foreign aid, as did Haiti before the earthquake - then we sent in the UN. How is that ignoring them? Australia and other Western governments spend billions every year clearing up mess in poorer countries after disasters you probably never even hear about.
      I think it’d be pretty offensive to the people of QLD to ignore them whilst an area the size of France is underwater because they live in a developed country and must therefore be okay.
      We can’t take care of everyone, but nor does that mean we’re only taking care of one problem at a time.

    • NESLIHAN KUROSAWA says:

      08:28am | 02/11/12

      Hi David,

      I have also thought the very same thing all along!  But do we need to wonder how Americans get heard by having all those multi media and news networks reporting from the all the trouble spots, war zones and disaster stricken areas in our world.  Is it only because some lives happen to be worth than the lives of others living in slightly poor nations?  Maybe so however we have to acknowledge the fact that powerful nations like the USA with higher living standards and life expectations even the most ordinary events will make headlines around the world instantly.

      In some other nations like Haiti and others in Asia and the Middle East natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and droughts have a regular pattern of occurrence which actually becomes a part of their lives as well as their struggle for survival unquestionably.  It goes hand in hand with all the problems with access to clean water, food, proper housing and sanitation. They seem to be so used such things that they simply end up waiting for humanitarian aid from other nations, hoping it will arrive in time.

      At times like these for the Americans not having access to our iPhones and Facebook might be laughable for some of us.  However not having electricity to charge our phones can be a breaking point still.  While all the other nations just want the very basics like somewhere dry and clean to sleep in as well as having some decent hot meal and the very basic medication for infections which can be devastating after a disaster. It is really a toss up between going without little luxuries or life saving medicine and food.  You decide for yourselves!  Kind regards.

    • ZSRenn says:

      08:34am | 02/11/12

      I was watching a news report on CCTV last night where a US citizen was describing the storm as just as bad as the one that hit them 30 years ago. I wonder did this particular clip make the Australian news services?

    • Kika says:

      08:58am | 02/11/12

      No, I think it makes sense. You put your family before others, why? Because they are closer to you than others. You put your friends before strangers, state before country, country before the world, allies before non-allies. Whilst the news coverage was a bit OTT, it made sense we were curious about it. America - particularly the north east coast - is the capital of the 1st world financially and politically and we are close allies with the USA it makes sense we would be interested to see what happened.

      I think it also has something to do with the slow desensitisation of seeing disasters happening in third world or developing countries. They happen all the time everywhere, so when something horrible happens elsewhere it seems more dramatic. Like, for eg, the earthquakes in Japan and NZ - they seem to have dominated our news (Japan more so than NZ probably) but we don’t get much press coverage of the earthquakes in Turkey or Italy… It’s all relativity and proximity.

    • Jess says:

      09:14am | 02/11/12

      A storm that big I’m quite sure that the meterologists etc from around the world were keeping the meterologists in Cuba and Hati informed who were then informing the government of those countries. Their governments just don’t as many options to help the people in there countries. Chances are countries around the devistated countries are sending help and man power. The US alone has most likely sent help to all countries hit by the storm. 

      Also mobile phone use in developing countries is huge. The telecoms in Africa do a much better job then the ones in Australia. And they work over many countries ours is just 1.

    • prosperity says:

      10:17am | 02/11/12

      A nation hell-bent on the death and destruction of thousands of innocent men, women and children in other countries; razing every city and village; eliminating every piece of infrastructure and all their social resources; and now hit by a disaster of its own, arouses in me feelings only of schadenfreude.

    • Economist says:

      11:04am | 02/11/12

      Yeah like that’s every American affected views, they’re all warmongers. Get a grip no schadenfreude from me.

    • Jeremy says:

      10:24am | 02/11/12

      I think a lot of people just have guilt over not getting involved when they see disasters in poor countries, but also underestimate how much our governments are working in poorer countries without us really noticing.
      We (media-wise) focus on what is close-by, and what happens to similar countries - if you want to know what’s going on elsewhere there are plenty of websites and magazines and newspapers that are widely available in Australia that would tell . It’s your own fault if you are failing to get niche information from mainstream local media.
      The media doesn’t ‘ignore’ those nasty poor people, it recognizes that no one has all day to watch the news - so it prioritizes what might be relevant to its viewers.

    • Sandra says:

      11:40am | 02/11/12

      What often strikes me in these cases is the difference in the response of the locals. This may be the difference in they way disasters are reported but in first world countries as soon as the disaster ‘passes’ then everyone pitches in to clean up, donations pour in and communities rebuild relatively quickly. The footage from Haiti shows many people still living in tents and relying on international aid.  Regardless of how much aid is provided there does not seem to be any improvement in the response or preparedness for these natural disasters in the poorer countries. That begs the question of what can be done to help them help themselves.

    • Utopia Boy says:

      02:35pm | 02/11/12

      The media coverage here in the middle east was/is I’m guessing, the same as it is/was in Oz. If you have Sky or Fox, NBC, CBS, there is no choice. Turn on the news and it’s all that is on.
      What’s disturbingly pathetic is the ratings grab by the networks and the self massaging of certain reporter’s egos. When the news anchor is relaying messages from officials to get away from the danger, yet cross to a reporter in a spray jacket getting pummeled (and in some cases almost taken) by waves / running water and wind, it emphasises the “us and them” mentality that has infected the US media. Again the journalists are making themselves the story.
      Then of course, there’s the utterly, utterly inexcusable actions of some residents not leaving their homes when told to, and expecting to be looked after by first responders. It’s not like they didn’t have plenty of warning.
      If you’ve been to New York, you will know the locals are extremely proud of their city, and are, in spite of their reputation actually very, very friendly people. I wish them well.

    • Cam says:

      06:24pm | 02/11/12

      “US death toll from Sandy rises to 92” ....

 

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