It’s the stuff of nightmares. You wake up around 6am and you’ve no idea where you are or what’s happening. There’s torrential rain pouring down on you, the floors are flooded, the walls and roof above you have collapsed. You struggle outside, only to find destruction wherever you turn and you assume this must be a bad dream – it can’t possibly be true. Except this really is happening. And not only that, but you’re just a 10-year-old girl called Rosemika and you’re in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti, a country lacking the emergency resources to look after a vulnerable 10-year-old in the wake of a deadly 145mph hurricane. Haiti, which still hasn’t recovered from a devastating 7.0 earthquake just six years ago that killed 230,000 people.
On the 4th October 2016, 1.3 million people in southwestern Haiti woke up to this reality. Hurricane Matthew killed over 1,000 people and destroyed 30,000 homes, leaving behind a cholera outbreak and a humanitarian crisis for the survivors. Even now a month later, 750,000 people are in urgent need of food assistance.
But the situation of 10-year-old Rosemika and thousands of other children like her has barely registered in the minds of most Europeans, as the mainstream news in Europe only covered the story for a day or two at best. Why was this? When Europeans have such a vital role to play in donating funds and lobbying governments to provide humanitarian aid, why did the hurricane in Haiti fade so quickly from people’s newsfeeds and, thus, from their consciousness?
Is it due to bad timing?
Admittedly, in early October headlines across Europe were firmly focused on the insult-hurling antics of Trump and Clinton, as the televised presidential debates got underway, and the ongoing saga of Brexit, as Theresa May announced her deadline for triggering Article 50. With so much happening in the world of politics, it appears the European media couldn’t find the metaphorical column inches to squeeze in coverage of over 1,000 deaths in the Caribbean. This would be acceptable, if it weren’t for the stark contrast with the 6.2 magnitude earthquake in central Italy just six weeks earlier. The Italian earthquake on 24th August 2016 killed 298 people, well under a third of the Haitian death toll; however, it held the headlines across Europe for almost a week. It would appear that timing is crucial: August in Europe is traditionally holiday season for politicians and therefore a slow month for news outlets. There was simply nothing else to cover, so Italy’s catastrophe in August took centre stage, but Haiti’s in October simply did not.
Is it due to so-called ‘aid fatigue’?
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon raised the issue of ‘aid fatigue’ during his visit to crisis-stricken Haiti shortly afterwards, and he has a valid point. Have Europeans simply tired of hearing about endless humanitarian disasters? After decades of charity adverts and fundraising campaigns, are people now numb to images of destroyed communities, homeless children and ruined lives? The age-old blame game between journalists and readers for dictating what makes it into the news may shed some light on the situation. In today’s world of social media and sharing, where ‘reach’ is king, journalists have succumbed to producing sensationalist clickbait headlines that attract the most ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, causing anything that doesn’t go viral to fall out of the spotlight. Hurricane Matthew simply didn’t generate enough hits and was therefore quickly struck off the news editor’s priority list. So in this climate of widespread ‘aid fatigue’, who is then to blame for the absence of coverage on Haiti? The journalists for failing to make the hurricane ‘shareable’, or the readers for failing to ‘share’?
Or do people simply not care?
The glaring contrast between coverage of Italy’s earthquake and Haiti’s hurricane hints at an empathy gap. An insurmountable geographical and cultural gulf between developed Europe and underdeveloped Haiti meant that the plight of over a million fellow human beings 4,000 miles away simply failed to evoke people’s empathy. The compassion elicited by natural disasters appears to be deepest when the victims are familiar and easily relatable, and it’s true that most people in Europe will have limited knowledge or experience of life in Haiti. Europeans understandably identify more closely to nearby Italians than to distant Haitians, leading to a desensitisation of people to disasters that are deemed too far outside the European cultural frame of reference. Taken to an extreme, this empathy gap could even be considered a form of Eurocentrism, a tendency to see the world through a European lens, which betrays an underlying, residual sentiment of European pre-eminence and exceptionalism in the world. Although Europeans would never dare voice it out loud, this European bubble becomes evident when a far more devastating crisis in distant Haiti goes virtually ignored, compared to a less catastrophic earthquake in nearby Italy.
Still, this remains a recurrent problem for Europe. We’ll undoubtedly see this combination of bad timing, aid fatigue and an empathy gap rear its ugly head the next time disaster strikes in the developing world. The age-old blame game between journalists and readers cannot continue in this vein and Europeans must proactively step outside of the bubble. If not, we risk losing our sense of humanity altogether.
About Virginia Stuart-Taylor: Virginia started the Euroculture programme at Groningen in September 2016 after completing her BA in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Exeter, and after a few years working in Digital Strategy at the Spanish multinational Telefónica O2 in London and Madrid. She writes a travel blog called www.TheWell-TravelledPostcard.com, through which she is a Digital Ambassador for the global children’s charity Plan International. She also gained first-hand experience of post-earthquake development work while volunteering in Nepal with the NGO Raleigh International, nine months after the 2015 earthquake.