A quick quiz. No Googling, no conferring, but off the top of your head: what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, in Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet.
As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.
That there is a disparity in the global attention paid to these two natural disasters is hardly a novelty. It’s as old as the news itself, expressed in one, perhaps apocryphal Fleet Street maxim like a law of physics: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”
Most of this amounts to a pretty basic form of racism to which, lord knows, the media are far from immune; perhaps Eurocentrism would be more accurate. But whatever term you favour, it surely represents the most fundamental form of discrimination one can imagine: deeming the lives of one group of people to be worth less than those of another – worth less coverage, less attention, less sympathy, less sorrow.
Still, blaming the media is the easy option here. It allows everyone else to assume that, left to their own devices, they would be perfectly equitable in their distribution of empathy. But many western consumers of news would be more truthful if they admitted that images of a submerged US city do indeed strike them with greater force than images of a drowning Nepalese one, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps because the American city looks more like their own, or at least more familiar, thanks to films and television. Or simply because havoc in the US is more surprising than natural disaster in, say, India or Bangladesh – developing nations where extreme suffering and regular beatings from the elements have come to seem like part of the terrain.