Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Sir, Sir...but you can't stop an earthquake right?"


Many of my lessons over the last week have included conversations about Haiti and, after my initial surprise over the lack of current affairs knowledge amongst my kids, the levels of understanding and awareness did pick up. It is my constant lament that kids do not watch the news. On balance I should be more sympathetic. Apart from natural disasters, wars and dreadful weather conditions the kids aren't much interested in the finer points of the political process, (British, European or American) or the economy.

It is my task, according to the GCSE syllabus, to examine issues of suffering and evil in relation to the existence of God and one of the best lessons of the week was with my least able class where we just talked, looked at pictures and read newspaper reports. There was a palpable sense of empathy as each new statistic, photograph and personal account was examined. I found that very heartening. A girl in another class did ask why we were giving money abroad in a recession but shut up when I explained that the £38m I was talking about came from public donations. I was also gratified that the kids understood about issues of relative poverty. No matter how poor someone may be judged to be here, there is still a huge and unbridgable gap between British poverty and Haitian popverty - and that was before the earthquake.

One of the themes we pursue in the lessons is that of levels of human responsibility in the face of natural disasters, but both Jane and La Grandmere stole my thunder in their earlier comments. Those kids who assert: "What can you do? It's an earthquake." are those destined to get the D-G grades. The A*-C grades go to those who recognise that while we can not stop the natural disasters we could do something to limit the worst outcomes. So we've had conversations about early warning systems and how they may have helped the victims of earthquake and tsunami; we have looked at the earthquake-proofing of buildings and how poverty gets in the way of managing this effectively. In 2003 there were two earthquakes of similar magnitude. One hit Bam in Iran, killed 40,000 people and destroyed 80% of buildings. The other hit Paso Robles in California, killed 2 people and destroyed 0.01% of buildings. How can the disparity between the two outcomes be accounted for other than by the ability and willingness of the governments concerned to act proactively on behalf of their citizens in an earthquake zone? Now consider that Haiti is the poorest country in the Westen Hemisphere and ......

Well, I know I live in a "socialist" country and all, and I know I must be terribly naive and ideallistic but the moral of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has always struck me as an imperative and not an option. While we live in a culture where someone doesn't want to contribute to another's healthcare, though, we have no chance of ironing out those inequalities.

Why do people choose to live in certain locations in the knowledge that their area is vulnerable to earthquake, volcano, flooding and so on? As one of my kids said "It would be hard to be sympathetic to the population of California when the Big One hits and the whole area slips into the Pacific with huge loss of life. It's a big country. They could live somewhere else." Fair (if somewhat uncompassionate) point. What then, I ask, about the small volcanic island state where there is nowhere else to go? In this day and age with huge, and often unjustified, antagonism towards the asylum seeker and the refugee, and with issues of citizenship and passport rights clouding the issue, I don't see many nations rushing to be that grand-scale Good Samaritan. Quite the opposite: we close our borders and make entry harder. And yet if we do not come to some international consensus on levelling the playing field for the poor nations with all the financial implications for the First World, climate change is going to overtake us as millions of refugees start to move from the areas devastated and made uninhabitable by the "natural" disasters we are so carelessly and selfishly precipitating, while in many cases remaining in denial and actively working against solutions.