Friday, 25 March 2011

Our response to natural disaster

The news of the earthquake in Japan made me think about the reaction that we have toward national disaster. In Leek we are fortunate that that this is an area that avoids the extremes. We have earth tremors which are minor compared to the earthquakes that countries as disparate as Japan, Haiti, China and Pakistan have suffered over the last decade.

Interestingly the biographer of Doctor Johnson James Boswell was in Leek on the 12th September 1777 when the town was hit by a tremor so strong it forced the parishioners of St Edwards Church into the street in fear. Yes, Leek as are many communities in the UK is fortunate that natural disasters are rare, not only that but the effectiveness of the public services make recovery a speedy process. Perhaps the last great disaster to hit this island was the great floods that hit East Anglia in the early 50s when over 300 died.

 We have to go back to the middle ages to think of a time when calamity struck Leek with the great fire at the end of the 13th century and 50 years later the impact of the Black Death, which will have killed many. Historians suggest that a third of the population died over the bubonic plague. Of course at that time people would have been intensely religious and the superstitious will have responded to the wrath of God with fervent prayer and seeking out a scapegoat. In other parts of Europe this usually meant the Jews.

The attitude to calamity changed markedly during the 18th century especially when a massive earthquake flattened Lisbon in 1755. Over 40,000 died in one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Surely a questioning person began to say if this is the will of God then why direct it at the pious Portuguese? The event called into question the notion of a benevolent creator and to be a sign that a new kind of knowledge was required. These early scientists began the process of questioning the world around them in a process that would ultimately lead to Charles Darwin. The view that disasters are gods will has not entirely gone away as fundamentalists in the US blamed both Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti Earthquake last year on human wickedness.

The terrible event in January 2010 in Haiti encapsulates the best and worst of human responses to such events. The speedy response, the questions around the impact of non governmental agencies in Haiti and the suspicion that many regarded the event as a publicity opportunity rather than a humanitarian one. The media concentration on rioting as desperate people fought for meagre supplies. And then a failing away of interest as that wretched place was left to its own devices as the world’s focus shifted elsewhere.

Like it or not our reply to disaster in other parts of the world is not a balanced one witness the massive response to the Christmas 2004 Tsunami in South East Asia and the paltry one to the Pakistan earthquake a year or so later