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A horrendous calamity

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15.Jan.10

If the devastation which has hit the people of Haiti does not touch the social consciences of the people of the world, then nothing else will. Even though the full scale of the horrors heaped on our sister nation by Tuesday’s earthquake is yet to be fully comprehended, it is clear that we are witnessing a disaster, the likes of which has not been experienced globally since the Asian tsunami of 2004.{{more}} Already there is speculation that the death toll may run into the hundreds of thousands. That is a huge loss for a country of 9 million persons, for the deceased only represent one aspect of the total loss. For a Caribbean country, you are talking about the entire populations of several islands combined.

The world has experienced bigger losses in absolute terms, but most of them have been in far larger countries with much bigger populations. Populous China comes immediately to mind with floods in 1931 taking the lives of a minimum of 1 million (and up to 4 million at the maximum), and an earthquake nearly five centuries ago claiming an estimated 830,000 lives. The 2004 tsunami is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 persons. But those absolute figures are for populations amounting to hundreds of millions. When you start tallying those numbers for a small Caribbean country, then one begins to realise the true proportions of the tragedy.

Worse, it is not as though Haiti was sailing along a path of smooth economic and social progress. It has the misfortune not only to be the poorest country in the hemisphere but also the one most badly affected by natural disasters over the past few years – tropical storms, destructive hurricanes, flooding etc. Each one not only causes economic damage; it sets back the development thrust. How can you plan and execute programmes in such circumstances? Then again, with such a high rate of poverty and the lack of proper physical and social infrastructure, Haiti is least able to absorb these body blows.

Governance for instance, is a major issue in Haiti as it struggles to establish democratic norms. But democratic governance is essential to the provision of basic social services at the community level. All the aid in the world can be piled up and shipped to Haiti but the distribution of supplies, and ensuring that they reach those who need them most is a critical factor. That is the complex series of problems which make up the Haitian mosaic.

The statistics can never reveal the true extent of the human tragedy and suffering, the social dislocation, the damage to family and community life. They do not qualify the setbacks to the attempts to establish normalcy and ordered social and economic development. They can never speak about the shattered dreams, the truncated hopes, the turning of aspiration to frustration. This represents a huge setback for not just Haitian, but Caribbean development as well. How can this Haiti participate on an equal footing in establishing a Caribbean Single Market? What place can such a devastated society have in an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union?

The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of the entire Caribbean. As SEARCHLIGHT extends its sympathy to the victims of the earthquake, we call on all our citizens to support the relevant appeals for assistance in whatever form. Clearly, in the immediate aftermath, it is those countries with the capacity to re-establish infrastructural links which will be most relevant to the earliest efforts. But interest in relief efforts has a way of petering out once the initial glory has gone, so it will be necessary to be there for the long haul. Above all, our media can make a critical contribution if they can provide the information and the tools to allow our people to get a better understanding of Haiti instead of the images fed to us of primitive people steeped in voodooism and backwardness who are perhaps paying for their sins. That is an essential part of helping our Haitian brothers and sisters.

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