By: Mehdi Boukhalfa
Our helplessness before the climate is perhaps why we are so captivated by it. We navigate our lives and our schedules according to the predictions of the weatherman. Thankfully, advancements in technology and the reach of the media have helped widen the gap from when we become informed of an impending natural disaster, to when disaster strikes. And oftentimes, the ways in which we communicate these events to the masses have serious implications as to how the world generally responds.
Hurricane Sandy made landfall just last week off the east coast of the United States and the Caribbean. This represented a serious issue for nations in the Caribbean, near-third world countries whose infrastructure and economy were generally ill equipped to handle the ravages posed by the likes of Sandy. Haiti, still recovering from the 2010 earthquake and the ongoing cholera outbreak, was especially hard hit. Overall, the hurricane proved to be the most costly for the US, incurring nearly 50 billion dollars in damages and around 100 fatalities. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, incurred somewhere between 1 and 3 billion in damages, and around 70 casualties combined. The discrepancies in these numbers are likely due to the US’s immense size relative to the other countries, reflected in the size of its population.
But the issue at hand is not economic in nature, but humanitarian. Before reaching land, media conglomerates focused almost exclusively on the consequences Sandy would have on New York and surrounding areas. After the hurricane, the coverage was again centered around the new socio-economic state of affairs of the East Coast, particularly the New York Stock Exchange and implications Sandy had for the oncoming presidential election. The Caribbean received little to no attention in the Western media, a major outlet to the world for disseminating information as to Western affairs.
Media coverage is particularly effective in galvanizing sympathy and catalyzing collective action, and can mean the difference between a country’s receiving aid, and being left alone. This becomes especially true when the countries at hand are unable to fend for themselves after a natural disaster. Haiti for example has no organization set in place for immediate rescue of its citizens, unlike FEMA in the United States, and Jamaica’s sole electricity provider reported that 70% of its customers were without power after Sandy. How must these countries fend for themselves, if they generally rely on external means for support? And how does media coverage affect the extent to which it receives this aid? The answers to these questions are sadly measured in the number of lives, lost to events we cannot control.