There’s a persistent myth in wealthy countries that disasters happen elsewhere. We—as a national and resident of two such countries, I include myself—like to believe that money and technology, stability and industrialization, insulate us from unexpected catastrophes.
Some of this is hubris tied to the power of wealth. Some of it is negligence of exogenous threats, especially natural hazards. Most of our lived experience is designed around the idea that we have tamed nature into fenced urban trees and occasional grassy swards, and we no longer need to take it into account.
And we are also overly enamored of the scientific advances that give us the ability to pour money toward specific objectives, such as the sleek and elaborate protective shells that we design for our cities, our houses, ourselves.
We are so sure that disasters don’t happen to us that when one does, we talk as if it made our here into over there, instead of admitting that there might be problems—deep, endemic problems—where we are.
Consider the way journalists talked about Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, persistently describing the city as being like “a third-world country.” Rather than recognizing the situation as connected to the city’s ongoing conditions, this metaphor suggests the disaster is inherently foreign, a piece of another place inexplicably erupting within the familiar.
The United States isn’t the only place enamored of this myth. While researching the 2011 tsunami in Japan, I heard similar statements from residents who had watched on television the destruction of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 225,000 people in 12 countries. They told me they never expected to see the same thing at home.
Money and technology can certainly mitigate the impacts of disasters. The coronavirus vaccines developed with incredible speed and rigorousness are proof. But money and technology never provide a perfect shield, and to mitigate at all, they have to be directed in the right ways; we need to realize that preparing for disasters is a worthwhile expenditure.
From my experience as a disaster responder and researcher, I’ve concluded that while money can be helpful, it is far less important than organization. Money without organization is misspent or not spent at all; organization without money can usually accomplish something. At a certain point of scarcity and urgency, money is no longer fungible, and simply cannot buy what is needed; organization, though it is exhausting and more difficult to quantify and impossible to standardize, is always a strategy. Fundamentally, these are human problems, and we need to address them as humans, working together.
I hope—though I don’t have a lot of confidence about it—that the pandemic experience will start to change the belief that money can insulate a country from disaster. Even as COVID-19 has disrupted daily life in wealthy countries, so far it has done much less damage in not-so-wealthy ones. Africa has had far better response results than either North America or Europe. It is too early to analyze the reasons, but countries that were aware of the weaknesses of their medical systems seem to have taken prevention and distancing more seriously. And it has worked. It is proving cheaper, easier, and safer to close borders, enforce mask wearing and social distancing, and shut down businesses as needed than to care for all those who have fallen ill by practically unchecked spread. And yet many wealthy countries have chosen the latter approach.
Wealthy countries have far more capacity for preparing for disasters than poor countries; that we rarely put it to use is in part due to our hubris in believing that we can deal with whatever comes. We can’t. If we can accept that now, perhaps we’ll be able to turn more of our resources to the present catastrophe in the environment.