Bearing the brunt

Belen Fernandez
Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

On February 6, massive earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, inflicting ghastly damage across a geographic region that has already borne a great deal of earthly devastation in recent decades. The ongoing war in Syria has produced millions of refugees, many of whom have now found themselves victims of seismic activity in the Turkish south.

The death toll from Monday’s quakes quickly jumped into the thousands and will no doubt soar to far more macabre heights. An untold number of people remain buried beneath the rubble. Traumatised survivors contend with frigid temperatures and aftershocks; refugees contend with the loss of any semblance of refuge.

The natural disaster has served to underscore what should hardly be earth-shattering news: that life for the global poor is extremely precarious and plagued by multiple, simultaneous crises from which recovery is often futile.

To be sure, the dwellings inhabited by the have-nots of the earth can be structurally less reliable and potentially more vulnerable to tectonic tumult – as was seen, for example, in the Peruvian earthquake of 2007, when homes collapsed across poor neighbourhoods in the province of Ica. But in a world structured upon capitalist foundations, precarity goes much deeper than shoddy construction materials or disregard for building codes.

For starters, capitalism’s insistence on acute inequality and the tyranny of an elite minority means there are major global fault lines between rich and poor – ones that are becoming ever more pronounced in the era of climate change and attendant ecological calamity. And while aid pledges inevitably come pouring in after high-profile disasters, they often only exacerbate the divide by lining the pockets of the aid industry rather than benefitting the disaster-stricken themselves.

There is also the reality that, for much of the world’s precarious population, life constitutes a more or less continuous disaster, but one that generates no attention. In June, The New Humanitarian news agency noted gross disparities in disaster relief, with almost half of all emergency funding for 2022 “going to only five protracted – and largely conflict-driven – crises”. Citing a recent United Nations estimate that the number of annual disasters will increase to some 560 by the year 2030, the agency described how victims of under-the-radar disasters are often forced to remain in unsafe locations – thereby setting the stage for new crises.

Take the case of Afghanistan, where an ongoing dependence on aid has done nothing to make the country safe. In August, floods killed more than 180 people, just two months after an earthquake had killed more than 1,000. In May, the NGO Save the Children reported that the country was suffering its “worst hunger crisis on record”, with nearly 50 per cent of the population going hungry on account of a raging drought and continuing economic breakdown. Such are the toxic legacies of two decades of a United States-led “war on terror” that devastated the lives, livelihoods and futures of millions of Afghans and sucked in billions of dollars of “recovery funds”.

For another illustration of how politics, greed and mismanagement overlap with and compound environmental catastrophe, we need look no further than the Caribbean nation of Haiti, where in 2021 a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake was followed by a deadly storm and landslides. More than 2,200 people were killed and 130,000 homes destroyed, in addition to a number of schools and hospitals.

This came just over a decade after a 2010 earthquake killed some 220,000 people and rendered 1.5 million homeless. Only a smidgen of the billions of dollars that flowed in to “rescue” Haiti actually reached poor Haitian earthquake victims, going instead to aid organisations, international security forces, and other supposedly competent folks – like the UN peacekeepers who promptly unleashed a cholera epidemic upon the nation.

In ensuing years, US support for official corruption in Haiti would make the terrain extra fertile for political crisis, while further eroding the country’s ability to respond to earthquakes and other disasters.

Excerpted: ‘When calamities strike, it is the poor who bear the brunt’.