Rethinking disaster responses

By Cath Taylor

Posted in Culture

Irma, Harvey, Maria – they could be your elderly neighbours sitting down for a cuppa and a Scotch Finger biscuit together. Except they’re not. They’re killers that have contributed to the second costliest year of natural disasters the United States of Americaand the Caribbean has ever seen. And it’s only September.

Meanwhile, millions of people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and across Africa are sodden, homeless, hungry and bereaved in the aftermath of yet another annual season of monsoons, flooding, landslide and disease.

Some declare the end times. Others have pointed to climate change. But while people may not agree on the existential issues, one thing is very clear – we need unnatural responses to natural disaster if we’re going to solve an ever-deepening global problem.

People of faith are ideally positioned to do exactly that. Here’s why:

One of the major problems related to natural disaster is that they kill many more thousands of people around the world than we tend to realise or comprehend. This has devastating long-term consequences for millions of people, most of them eked out in poverty. Desperation deepens. Inequality grows. Resentment simmers. In many cases, we are oblivious to this suffering – our politicians and media often privelege coverage of certain disasters and people over others. Not all victims are equal.

When Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the Caribbean and the US this month, Western media beamed images of white people and their frightened dogs into homes where people recognised the clothing brands, car badges and hairstyles.

At the same time, terrified parents were lifting their children onto their backs and wading through waist-deep water in Myanmar. The TV cameras were nowhere in sight.

It’s only natural for us to care most about those with whom we have things in common. But what happens when the lives of two thirds of the globe are ignored by the affluent other third? What happens when that pattern is reinforced again and again and again?

If you sense a deep-seated anger and resentment in some of the more turbulent parts of the world, you’d be right.

What is it about people of faith that can make a difference in this setting?

All of Jesus’ relationships – culminating in life hewn from death – are a call to each of us to go beyond ‘what comes naturally’.  

Jesus redefined family to include any and all who worked together in the name of love. He had a particular interest in those who were overlooked. We must move beyond what is ‘natural’ and obvious; we must champion those who are in need but are so often ignored or forgotten about. We must keep an eye on under-reported disasters in developing countries, and urge others to pray for and talk about these communities. We are called to recognise and re-frame these people as our family.

There are also practical steps that we can take. The vast majority of people are only moved to give to a cause once we’ve seen the impact of a recent natural disaster and witnessed images of loss and devastation. But we can best prevent disasters from becoming tragedies by preparing communities in advance – moving people to safety, building stronger homes and other infrastructure and creating proper evacuation plans.

Giving in response to disaster is a perfectly natural human reaction, but giving before one has far greater impact for communities in regions where natural disasters are all too common. $1 invested to help reduce the impact of a disaster is more effective than $15 given in the wake of one.

There’s something about those of us who claim to be people of faith that urges us into the breach. Our vision is bigger than what we see in the here and now, the emotional pull of the media on our heart and purse strings. We’re not alone in the ability to see a much bigger picture and respond accordingly, but the dedication to build a world we cannot yet imagine is at the heart of the Christian narrative. In the face of increasing disasters, growing inequality and entrenched poverty, we need to push the boundaries of what comes naturally and easily.

To find out more about how UnitingWorld supports communities at risk of natural disasters, please click here. This article was originally published on the UnitingWorld website here (it has been edited slightly for use in New Times).

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