Social fault lines

When disaster strikes, it usually highlights the faults lines of poverty and class that already existed in a society. We saw this at work in New Orleans after Katrina, but never has this been more apparent than in Haiti.

Lauren R. Stanley shares this article which shows how poverty magnifies the devastation of a natural disaster.

It is doubtful that anyone of any class was spared the horror of the 7.3-scale earthquake. In a country where one in every 18 to 30 people died (no one knows the fatality figure), everyone knows someone no longer among the living. No one is sheltered from the jarring public visuals of catastrophe: rampant displays of wounds and freshly amputated legs, mountains of rubble on every city block, tents and improvised shelters clogging streets, houses and walls looming ominously over sidewalks. No conversation appears to veer long from the earthquake and its aftermath.

But the direct impact of the earthquake varies markedly among classes. The solidity of housing construction was the primary variable in whose home stood and whose did not. The toll of lost family and friends is a direct result of that, too, as most died due to buildings collapsing on them. Income lost is also largely class-dependent, since the poor’s job security and access to the informal sector earnings are much more precarious.

For those in Haiti’s middle- and upper-income strata, before-the-earthquake privileges are returning. Lines are long in Port-au-Prince’s few grocery stores, where one can buy an array of imported goods, and where one need not sweat, haggle over prices or stand next to fly-filled garbage piles while shopping. Jazz clubs are reopening in tony P√©tionville. Easter celebrations were, for some, lavish.

For most, though, post-earthquake “normalization” means adaptation to even higher levels of social and economic precariousness. Life was somewhere between unsustainable and miserable for most Haitians before. Then – in what were, inconceivably, better times – 80 percent lived below the poverty line and 54 percent lived in abject poverty.[1] Then, Haiti was the third hungriest country in the world, after Somalia and Afghanistan, and ranked 149 out of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Life expectancy at last count was 55 years for women and 53 years for men, while adult literacy stands at about 62 percent.[2]

For those already exiled to the absolute margin of survival through government neglect, unchallenged concentration of land and other resources by a few and foreign economic policies, the effects of the earthquake ripple in ever-expanding circles. These survivors lost not only family members, homes and all their personal belongings. Many have also lost the merchandise they were selling, their informal sector jobs and whatever else might have given them a little protection from hunger, suffering and accelerated death.

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