Every disaster plan is built to some degree around the idea of triage -- deciding who can and cannot be saved. The worst cases are often separated and allowed to perish so that others who are considered more survivable can be treated.
There is a tragic triage underway in Haiti thanks to screw-ups in the US and western response, and in part because of the objectively tough conditions in Haiti that blocked access and made the delivery of food, water and services difficult. But the planners should have known that!
Flickr.com image by United Nations Development Programme
Look at the TV coverage. "Saving Haiti" is the title CNN has given to its coverage. It shows us all the planes landing, and donations coming in and celebrity response on one hand, and then the problems/failures to actually deliver aid on the other.
Much of the coverage focuses on the upbeat -- people being saved. But despite that frame, which highlights a compassionate America's response, the reality of what's happening in Haiti is only barely getting through. It's not pretty.
Everyone wants to believe in the best intentions of all involved but five days after the quake, with so few being helped, we have to ask: how did this get so badly done?
It's like Obama's plan to stop foreclosures through modifying loans. Great idea, but only a handful of homeowners have benefited. There is a yawning gap between the idea and its execution.
So what happened in Haiti? The short answer: it is too little and in many cases, much of it too late. A natural disaster has been compounded by a well-intentioned man-made one.
Why? One global report explained:
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of the first 72 hours following the 12 January disaster. But already much of that crucial time has been spent attempting to assess the situation.The structures usually responsible for dealing with civilian emergencies have been unable to respond effectively due to widespread destruction of national and international power structures.
(This means the UN and the Haitian government as well as the US effort).
Lacking outside support, civilians have worked communally to try to save their own families.Supplies were sent but many have yet to get out of the airport. Troops have not been assigned to help deliver water or guard medical facilities. There is a fear of the wrath of a people that are pissed off at hearing about aid and money donated, and then seeing nothing trickling down into their neighborhoods.
And there is a deeper fear -- a political fear. With President Aristide, the man the US considers too radical for its tastes, anxious to return, there is fear that a possible revolt against the lack of help could turn angry and political.
Hillary Clinton keeps telling the Haitians that we are their friends -- but many doubt it.They know that Aristide's Lavalas party is the most popular in Haiti and wants a more profound transformation than the US wants to allow. It had been banned from taking part in scheduled elections next month, that are likely to be canceled now. Haiti's president Preval is weak and dependent on US largesse.
They also know that in the aftermath of earthquakes, like the one that rocked Manaqua, Nicaraga in the 1970s, there can be revolution. They don't want that to happen in Haiti. They also know how volatile the country is, in part because of neglect by the West over the years.
Private help is not getting through either. Western Union offices are still closed in a country that relies on foreign remittances as a lifeline.The media is finally admitting the aid mission is failing, although that's not the word used -- they say the relief effort is "troubled!" Here's the headline in the NY Times: "Officials Strain to Distribute Aid to Haiti as Violence Rises." The piece continues: "A sprawling assembly of international officials and aid workers struggled to fix a troubled relief effort."