Via The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Katz explains How Not to Report on an Earthquake. Katz was on the ground in the Haitian quake, and later identified the likely origin of Haiti's cholera in a leaky pipe from the Nepali peacekeepers' camp. He knows whereof he speaks. Excerpt:
As for the notion of post-disaster disease outbreaks, epidemiologists have gone looking for evidence of epidemics resulting from calamities like earthquakes, and they have generally concluded that they don’t happen. (“The news industry is prone to emphasizing more dramatic and simplistic messages, and unjustified warnings will likely continue to be spread on the basis of an approximate assessment of risks,” the authors of a 2006 study wrote in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) I
f you look closely, news reports tend to cite unspecified “fears” or “threats” of disease, often sourced to nongovernmental organizations like the Red Cross. But those sources are rarely asked to produce any actual evidence.
There is violence after disasters, just as there is violence every day wherever humans live. But taking a hard look back puts the lie to the idea that societies somehow become less cohesive after a natural shock, at a moment when most people are busy trying to put their lives back in order. After Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, crime fell in nearly every category in New York City. (The murder rate in Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, when it was last measured nearly a decade ago, was higher than New York’s but comparable to Chicago’s in recent years.)
There is no way to know for sure if that was true in Port-au-Prince; crime statistics were unreliable before the quake and nonexistent after. The escape of prisoners from the city’s national penitentiary did lead to a series of murders over turf in the slum Cité Soleil, and there were reports of increased sexual violence in the months after the disaster. But there was no widespread civil unrest of the magnitude that would justify keeping 20,000 United States troops on call.
Having been there at the time, I recognized the sentiment expressed by Donatella Lorch, a Katmandu-based writer, in The Times this week: “I am buoyed by the generous spirit of [Nepal’s] people. My son and I know that life here will get worse in the days and weeks ahead as fuel and water run low. But we also know we are in this together.”
These myths come with consequences. Rash decisions made in the heady days after a disaster, when everyone is committed to the response and the money is flush, are fiendishly difficult to undo. In Haiti, fears of insecurity led to a militarized response that concentrated too much assistance in certain parts of the capital, poured money into defense and security measures when it would have been better spent elsewhere and often treated survivors as threats rather than people to be helped.
The Haiti responders’ desperation to push food into the quake zone helped increase the size of the post-quake displacement camps as people gravitated to the handouts. (The most famous tent city in Port-au-Prince, the camp that was ultimately run by Sean Penn, originally formed around the aid-distribution point run by the United States Army 82nd Airborne Division on the site of a country club.)
And the ensuing fixation on those camps as potential sources of infection meant responders were looking in the wrong place when, nine months later, cholera was seemingly introduced into Haiti by a contingent of United Nations peacekeepers — from Nepal, coincidentally — starting an epidemic that has killed more than 8,900 people and has yet to be fully contained. (The United Nations has never formally acknowledged playing a role in the epidemic.)
The sum of all this was an uncoordinated and improvisational relief effort that failed to work with Haitian institutions and people, or to strengthen the Haitian government to face future calamities. Those missed opportunities continue to haunt the country