The empathy inequality: Pray for the rich and forget Haiti

October 15, 2016
Worthy of prayers? Child survivors of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti.

There is a very sinister, hellish thing behind the tepid concern that rears its head when a country like Haiti suffers a tragedy.

As 800 people died and 90% of parts of southern Haiti were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew earlier this month, leaving whole towns flattened, and people homeless and without basic infrastructure, the trending hashtag was #PrayForFlorida.

The UN said 1.4 million people will need assistance. But apparently that is not enough for Facebook profile pics to change or world leaders to march — as they did for the 12 Charlie Hebdo attack victims in Paris.

Facebook did not turn on its safety check feature or its donate buttons for Haiti, as it did for the Orlando tragedy. CNN barely mentioned Haiti, as it broadcast footage of winds over Florida instead. A week later, CNN went to Haiti to cover the story, reporting that this was a country “destined to suffer”.

People outside of the US remember the September 11 anniversary each year, but how many people remember when in 2010 the earthquake hit Haiti, killing 230,000 people?

Some may argue that we respond to natural disasters and terrorism differently. But “terrorism” can also apply to the economic policies of countries such as the US, which enrich multinationals while impoverishing whole nations and stealing their resources, leading to substandard housing and infrastructure. Such policies should be seen as equally unacceptable.

But the normalised mass death of the poor is capitalism’s “shruggable” offence. The crime is overlooked.

There is an “empathy inequality”. People living in the richer countries find it easier to put themselves in the shoes of other people living in those more powerful countries.

What few want to admit is that the Western world has been educated through Eurocentric schooling, white-centric and non-working-class centric movies, and white-centric news so as not to identify with people in poor countries. Well-off white men are the leading actors in this world and the rest are the extras — anonymous, silent and disposable.

There is a structured system of nobodies. And this mentality — that some just don’t count — is the sort of mentality that means that no one remembers, or knows, about the 500,000 people killed in Indonesia in 1965–66 in a Western-backed coup that installed the Suharto dictatorship.

It is a mentality that allows thousands of refugees to drown each year in the Mediterranean and 8 million people to die of hunger each year.

Like a table for the important people, outrage is reserved for others.

Tamara Pearson is a writer, journalist, and activist based in Latin America. She is the author of a progressive literary novel, The Butterfly Prison.

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