“Disaster Fatigue” is not unlike “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. It is a phrase that has been rammed into the public consciousness quicker than you can say “media spin”.
Unlike WMD, “disaster fatigue” was used to justify something we had not done – supply aid to the victims of the Pakistan earthquake – rather than something we were about to do – illegally invade Iraq.
The idea is that after the East Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, the British people and government were so fatigued by caring about other people’s disasters that they just don’t have enough compassion or energy left to care about another one.
This is ridiculous for a number of reasons. The main one is that more people living in Britain have a direct family connection to areas of Kashmir and Pakistan affected by the earthquake than Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami put together.
Yet the response by the government in particular has been pitiful. Tony Blair promised to match every pound that the public raised for the tsunami victims. This was partly down to public pressure following the disaster.
But Blair managed to fall £100 million short of the £300 million plus raised by British people.
It was the single biggest outpouring of charity by the British people ever.
So when the Pakistan earthquake was greeted with a tiny response by comparison the media rolled out “disaster fatigue” as an explanation.
The media are largely to blame for the apathy surrounding the quake. The tsunami occupied the front pages for a long time and the relatively small number of Britons directly affected were given huge coverage.
The tens of thousands of confirmed earthquake deaths did not even make the front pages of our best selling newspapers the following Monday. The Sun decided that a story about one of David Beckham’s children was more important. The Mirror opted for a second hand splash about Kate Moss’s cocaine habit.
The other tabloids followed suit with only the broadsheets giving front page coverage to a loss of life that was ten times higher than 9/11. When the confirmed death toll of 78,000 hit the wires it barely got a mention.
A couple of weeks after the earthquake, NGOs started making noises about the lack of aid and a potential second disaster that could dwarf the original one.
With three million homeless, thousands of them badly injured, the coming winter threatened hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The previous winter had seen three months of snow lasting until March. This looming threat triggered the next media spin to offer the government and the public an easy get out clause.
Ask most people about winter in the quake zone and you will most likely be told that “there are not enough winter tents in the world to house the quake victims”.
This “fact” was repeated again and again, giving the impression that the victims’ lives were in the hands of nature and no amount of aid could save them if the winter brought a serious freeze.
But there were enough empty buildings, hotels, guest houses, barracks and warehouses in Pakistan and Kashmir to house every person if the money had been there to make it happen.
Fortunately, an exceptionally mild winter and incredible work by NGOs has avoided the necessity for any more excuse making.
Walking around the ruined town of Balakot in North East Pakistan for the second time since the quake, I find myself wondering how much religion affected the media coverage.
It would after all look truly hypocritical for our right wing tabloids to kick up a fuss about Muslims freezing in one country while advocating their bombing and slaughter in another.
Some lives will always be cheaper than others.
Right now the cheapest ones are on the receiving end of the so called war on terror.
Kashmir is of no direct strategic importance to the West, nor does it have any natural resources or valuable assets to plunder. Its only connection to Britain is an under-represented immigrant community at the bottom end of the social scale.
If the public can blame the media for their perception of events, the government, with all its resources, has no such excuse. The United Nations has recently suspended aid flights because much of the £100 million pledged in aid has not been delivered.
Tony Blair paid lip service to the initial disaster but, as always, failed to deliver.
The lack of aid from Britain and the US even prompted an angry and public dressing down from General Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator.
He has backed the “war on terror” at great cost to his own popularity. Yet when he has most needed help his “allies” have let him down. The partnership between Pakistan and Britain that Blair crowed about before the invasion of Afghanistan is clearly a one-way relationship.
Driving out of Balakot past the endless rows of flimsy tents, the field hospitals, and the thousands of injured and unemployed people, I wonder how different things could have been for them.
Imagine if this town had sat on an oil field? Or if it had been a top holiday destination for trendy young professionals?
There is something obscenely unfair about a system that dictates that people who already have little should get less in their hour of need.
Until more people start suffering from “capitalism fatigue” it will always be this way.