Why the Haitian hurricane barely graced your newsfeeds: bad timing or do we simply not care?


The aftermath of the Haiti Hurricane. Photo by DVIDSHUB

Virginia Stuart-Taylor

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?

Haiti post-Hurricane Matthew. Photo by World Relief

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’?

Ban Ki-Moon. Photo by Robert D. Ward

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?

Aftermath of the central Italian earthquake. By terremocentroitalia terremocentroitalia

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.

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What is an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree?

This week The Euroculturer is delighted to share this post from travel blogger and Euroculture student Virginia Stuart-Taylor. Virginia’s blog, The Well-Travelled Postcard, is a popular travel blog, aimed at inspiring people to get out and see the world.

Recently I moved to Groningen in the Netherlands to begin the Erasmus programme, Euroculture: Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context. This degree programme has a slightly unusual structure where students move to 3 or more different countries in 2 years and I’ve had a lot of questions asked about the programme by others who are tempted by that idea! My Master’s degree follows a relatively unknown structure that not many people have heard about, but it’s such a great idea that I thought I’d explain it in a bit more detail. First off the name: it’s called an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree.

Is it like Erasmus?

You’ve hopefully already heard of Erasmus… If not, then you’re missing out! Erasmus is an incredible student exchange programme run by the European Commission (an EU institution) that allows Bachelor’s students across Europe to spend a semester or a full year of their degree studying at another university in Europe. It encourages and allows students to live abroad, meet other people from all over Europe, understand another culture and broaden their horizons. Not only that, but the EU gives students an Erasmus grant to help them afford it, which varies from uni to uni, but when I did my Erasmus semester in Córdoba back in 2010-11 it was roughly €350 per month. It usually also includes a free course in the language of that country. You can also do Erasmus work placements, such as the 6-month internship I did at Armani in Italy as part of my Third Year Abroad, and you still receive the Erasmus grant. I adored my whole Bachelor’s degree, but I have to admit that my Erasmus year was by far the best year! You can do an Erasmus both at Bachelor’s and Master’s level, although only if your Master’s course is long enough and allows it (which is normally not the case in the UK as they’re only 9-12 months long). Continue reading “What is an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree?”