Sandrine Revet, in her interview with Science Po, tells us that “les catastrophes ne nivellent pas les inégalités mais qu’elles les creusent et les aggravent” (catastrophes don't level out inequalities, they aggravate them) (Revet 2020) calling into question the very understanding of catastrophe itself, detailing how ‘natural’ disasters, as we conceptualise them, do not exist. In this essay I will demonstrate the intersection of economic inequality and hazard events, which combine to create so-called ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’ resulting in long term social, physical and environmental adversity. First I will define ‘disaster’ and quantify ‘economic inequality’ to give us a solid framework through which we can view their unhappy marriage. Subsequently, I will illustrate this relationship by examining confluent events in Haiti: the 2010 earthquake and proceeding cholera epidemic that further devastated struggling communities.
A common perception of ‘natural’ disaster is “une calamité envoyée par un Dieu Vengeur, une manifestation de la force de la nature” (an act of God or a force of nature) in which the catastrophe or disaster can be measured in “pertes humaines, matérielles, économiques ou environnementales” (human, material, economic and environmental loss) and social upheaval.
In a 2013 study that addresses “the impacts of...events on all social units ranging from individuals and households to nation-state”, the following definition of ‘disaster’ is given:
“A disaster is ‘an event concentrated in time and space, in which a society or one of its subdivisions undergoes physical harm and social disruption, such that all or some essential functions of the society or subdivision are impaired”
In the same study a distinction is also given between ‘hazard events’ and ‘disasters’. The ‘hazard event’ is characterised by six attributes: “speed of onset; availability of perceptual cues (such as ground movement); the intensity, scope, and duration of impact; and the probability of occurrence.” We can distinguish between hazard and disaster by thinking of the hazard event as the earthquake and the ‘disaster’ as the outcomes that the hazard event encompasses, which are determined by ‘vulnerabilities’ being “‘the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard”.
These ‘facteurs de vulnérabilité’, consisting of structural, social and physical liabilities, make up this notion of ‘vulnerability’. Countries across the globe have different systems in place to deal with crises and different crises put stress on different structures in a society-”face à la maladie, la médecine, face à la pauvreté, le développement, face au risque, la science ou la technologie’ (for disease we have medicine, for poverty we have development, for risk we have science or technology). The absence or ‘underdevelopment’ of systems results in ‘vulnerabilities’. Vulnerabilities can take many forms and can be categorised as “people’s physical vulnerability, social vulnerability, and psychological, social, economic, and political resources” and households with increased exposure to “les facteurs de vulnérabilité” experience greater susceptibility to the impact of hazard events.
Economic inequality, defined as “the unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society”, is a central element of ‘disaster’ due to the ways in which economic inequality renders a country both vulnerable to crisis and hinders its ability to respond to such. According to Marx, economic inequality “had more to do with colonialism than with any endogenous feature of...society” however for the purposes of this discussion, we are more concerned with the present consequences of economic inequality as it stands, rather than the historical root of such a global and societal development, no matter how pertinent.
In the aftermath of ‘natural’ catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we see clearly how economic inequality correlates with increased vulnerability to disaster. Although this tragedy occured in a so-called ‘developed country’, it remains a strong example of how economically disadvantaged populations are worse hit by hazard events. Due to the physical environment that poorer, overwhelmingly black and female populations often find themselves in, and because of a lack of immediate resources, resulting from historical income disparities between groups, “consequently, [black women] were the least likely to be equipped with the necessary resources to take themselves and their families out of harm’s way.”
On a global level we see this same pattern play out between nations. Further on in this essay we will be looking at two disasters in Haiti in 2010 to illustrate the connection between economic inequality and disaster, therefore we must establish that Haiti experienced economic inequality if we are to say that economic inequality was a contributing factor in the disasters that struck the country in 2010. In an article questioning the role economic inequality plays in disaster events, Michael J Zimmer writes that “what is clear is that increased economic inequality correlates with lowered economic growth.” In 2000 over “75 percent of the population [of Haiti] lived on less than the equivalent of US$2 per day and the GDP of Haiti was a mere 6.5 Billion US dollars. The IMF 2009 report on Haiti described the country as being “at high risk of debt distress even in the baseline scenario.” Therefore we can say that Haiti, in the run up to 2010, was a country experiencing economic inequality.
The political and social consequences of economic inequality are far reaching and complex. It is difficult to quantify ‘economic inequality’ in all its forms, however as Carlos Ramirez-Faria writes in relation to Marx’s theory of economic inequality between nations, the ‘inequality’ that is being ‘alluded to here’ is the ‘inequality of underdevelopment’. Examining systems and public services, which can be said to be a measure of development in a country, can therefore provide insight to the scale of economic inequality experienced by the Haitian people and demonstrate how economic inequality is a major component of the construction of disaster itself.
On January 12th 2010 an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale hit Haiti, just outside Port au Prince. When the quake struck, the ‘hollowness of the state that had been constructed over more than two centuries in Haiti was brutally exposed to the whole world’ after decades of underfunding of public institutions and predatory siphoning of wealth from the peasant classes. Both on a national and individual level, the country was unprepared to handle a hazard event such as this. After decades of neglect by the authorities and despite repeated warnings of a hazard event occurring in Haiti it was, according to Lundahl, “what by and large determined the outcome of the Haitian earthquake” resulting in a massive death toll. Controversy surrounding the true number of deaths remains to this day however, The University of Michigan offered a death estimate ‘for Port- au-Prince of 111,794 people.”A conflicting report by David Schwartz for USAID put the death toll “between 46,109 and 84,961 persons.”
The particular concoction of disaster started brewing long before the quake hit Haiti on January 12th 2010. Vulnerabilities in a society can often be decades if not centuries in the making. One such vulnerability factor that made the earthquake in Port au Prince particularly devastating was the concentration of the population in the capital city, resulting from the environmental impacts of erosive agriculture. Due to the typography of the country of Haiti, the land is not best suited to agricultural practises however “an agricultural economy resting on small family farms was created” in the early 1800s. Practises that involved the uprooting of native coffee trees in lieu of crops, leading to a progressive erosion of the soil, coupled with a growing population, and a decline in per capita income in rural Haiti, resulted in more and more people moving out of the countryside and into the capital in search of work, further straining its limited public services.
The resulting population shift created a strain on available housing, resulting in overcrowded dwellings and a high population density: “40,000 inhabitants per square kilometer.” Layered on top of this was the resounding structural vulnerability of the country.
Structural vulnerability, a subset of ‘physical vulnerability’ which is “seen as the extent to which a system such as a community is exposed to adverse effects of a hazard and is (un)able to adapt to such impacts”, provides us with a framework through which we can qualify the influence of economic inequality and the underdevelopment of infrastructure when compounded with a hazard event such as an earthquake. The Haitian government had failed to enforce any real housing regulations on the run up to the 2010 earthquake. Among the problems with housing were poor urban planning, social infrastructure and housing development. Approximately “60 percent of the buildings were ‘shoddily built and unsafe under normal circumstances.” Buildings were not constructed to regulation standards nor were any regulations enforced. In fact “There are no standards” said Haiti’s new prime minister Michèle Pierre-Louis in an interview with the Miami Herald. The resulting impact on physical infrastructure was devastating:
“Some 105,000 houses were destroyed and 208,000 were damaged: almost 40 percent of all the buildings in the greater Port- au-Prince area. More than 1,300 schools were destroyed and more than 50 hospitals and health centers. 30 More than 180 government buildings were destroyed and 30,000 commercial buildings”
The connection between structural vulnerability and resulting devastation from the hazard event was a straight line.
However not all vulnerabilities apply evenly across demographics. Although we would think that hazard events are not sentient and therefore do not differentiate between people, the fact is that certain bodies are put in harm's way more often than others, as we saw in New Orleans where poor, black women were systemically concentrated “on low ground” and thus rendered more vulnerable to the impact of the hurricane as a result. Areas with concentrations of people of color “were more likely to be living in areas of lower elevation, and therefore were at greater risk of being affected by flooding” such as the people in Ninth Ward. These “disparities in vulnerability” can be predicted using a framework of social vulnerability.
Social vulnerability is considered to be “the institutional, demographic and socio-economic characteristics of an individual, community or system that reduce its capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from the hazard or disaster” and indicators of such include “age, race, health, poverty, income, type of dwelling unit and employment.” A poor, black, woman was more likely to be a victim of the disaster in New Orleans not merely because of her own personal choices but because of a systemic rot that forces, and keeps people in vulnerable conditions. Victims of disaster are “rendue vulnérable par des processus historiques, politiques et économiques” (made vulnerable due to historical, political and economic processes) and face the consequences of this vulnerability, exasperated and/or determined by economic inequality and underdevelopment.
A major challenge in understanding how ‘natural’ disasters impact communities, is that communities are not homogeneous, “so subunits such as households and businesses vary in their vulnerability to disaster impacts.” As Lindell suggests, we have to also be careful not to make assumptions about certain characteristics pertaining to vulnerabilities. People can be “differentiated by many different characteristics, some of which define vulnerability and others of which are merely correlated with vulnerability” and he argues for a comprehensive approach to defining characteristics that make up vulnerabilities, to include an intersectional consideration of contributing factors, not merely proximal causes of vulnerability “which are distal causes of vulnerability” and purely correlative.
Just ten months later, disaster would strike Haiti again in what would become an enduring aftershock of the January earthquake when a cholera epidemic made its way through the country’s struggling communities, who were by all accounts still living within the tailspin of disaster. Officials and citizens were puzzled at the origins of the new strain, having managed to avoid such an outbreak in previous decades when neighbouring countries hadn’t been as lucky. Some disasters “have multiple (e.g., earthquake aftershocks) or secondary (e.g., hazardous materials releases) impacts” and one such ‘hazardous material’ released into the environment, was a biological one: Vibrio cholerae. This is an example of physical and human vulnerability- which refers to “to susceptibility to biological changes”-which we will see was aggravated by structural vulnerabilities and deficiencies to create disaster. Some controversy surrounded the findings of a study by Renaud Piarroux who identified the source of the disease as Nepalese UN peacekeepers who had occupied the country months earlier during hurricane relief efforts. However, the UN denied such findings.
The layer that would then add disaster to this hazard event (introduction of cholera strain) was the structural deficiencies that could not and did not provide clean drinking water to citizens before and in the wake of the outbreak, leading to further contamination of drinking water and thus viral spread. “Without simultaneous water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies” spread of the virus through “environmental contamination with feces” and subsequent deaths would not have been so severe. “These deficiencies, coupled with conducive environmental and epidemiological conditions, allowed the spread of the Vibrio cholerae organism”. The healthcare system struggled to cope with the onslaught of patients that quickly began to pour in and deaths continued to mount as the epidemic persisted: an “estimated 8,500 deaths were reported by the Haitian Ministry of Health” by July 2014.
In conclusion, it is evident that many of the vulnerabilities which appear within systems and communities are the result of economic inequality. Such vulnerabilities create what we conceptualise as ‘disaster’, which manifests when hazard events strike populations that are ill prepared and under-resourced to mitigate, prevent and respond to stressors as outlined in the examples of the 2010 earthquake and proceeding cholera outbreak in Haiti. Understanding these vulnerabilities and how they affect communities in times of hazard events is central to understanding disasters. Implementation of strategies that address vulnerabilities- in which tackling the persistent role of economic inequality is evident- within populations is critical for disaster preparedness, prevention and mitigation.
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Ramirez-Faria, Carlos. The Origins of Economic Inequality Between Nations : A Critique of Western Theories on Development and Underdevelopment, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ucc.idm.oclc.org/lib/uccie-ebooks/detail.action?docID=614828
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