Through Haiti: How a Natural Disaster Disproportionately Affects Populations with Lower Socioeconomic Status

Public Health Commentaries by Students is the result of a classroom writing assignment by Dr. Erika Martin at the University at Albany-SUNY who required students to write a 1,000- to 1,200- word commentary on a health-related topic of interest, explaining some of the complexities of solving the problem and offering recommendations. Four commentaries have been selected for publication on JPHMP Direct. Other public health educators may find Dr. Martin’s process helpful in developing their own course materials. Learn more: “Designing University Writing Assignments to Foster Interest in Public Health Issues and Build Professional Skills.”

Despite the idea that natural disasters are nondiscriminatory and can cause tragedy in any community or country, they tend to be much more devastating within areas and populations in poor economic condition. This idea can be shown through the lens of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which struck Port-au-Prince with a magnitude of 7.0, causing over 200,000 deaths and 8 billion US dollars in damages, 123.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Haiti’s disaster can be compared to an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 that struck Chile a month later, causing around 560 deaths and 30 billion US dollars in damages, equal to only 18.3% of the country’s GDP. Though Haiti’s earthquake had a lower magnitude and caused less damage in US dollars, the country suffered more deaths and more economic damage compared by GDP.

Jayda Melnitsky Student Commentary

(Data from World Bank, 2018)

The 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, provides a perfect example of how economic inequality creates vulnerability concerning natural disasters. Though relief efforts always require a lot of resources, the destruction caused by natural disasters as well as the relief effort that follows would not need to be so extensive if countries had strong community resilience or the ability to respond to, withstand, and recover from adversity. Vulnerable areas such as Haiti need to be given assistance or protection prior to disasters to improve their underlying conditions. Policymakers should be aware of how exactly a vulnerable country is affected by a natural disaster, so there can be a shift in focus from disaster management to disaster prevention.

Haiti is one of the few countries in the world that has been heading downward in economic terms for decades on end. At the time of the earthquake in 2010, it was already poorer than it had been 50 years before. The death toll of the earthquake was catastrophic, but it might not have been nearly as bad if Haiti wasn’t already experiencing such drastic economic decline. Comparing countries from different economic situations that have experienced similar natural disasters exhibits how those with greater GDP are able to prevent or lessen the impact of a disaster more successfully. Preventative measures are a normal investment for countries with greater wealth, whereas it can be a luxury investment for countries without the same resources. Still, preventative measures alone cannot combat the other factors that contribute to the level of destruction that follows a disaster.

The preventative measures that Haiti had at the time of the 2010 disaster weren’t nearly enough to prevent the damages that did occur. The Haitian National System for Risk and Disaster Management (SNGRD) is a network made up of international and local civic groups, the Haitian government’s Department of Civic Protections (DPC), and support from the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). The measures planned by the SNGRD, such as the creation of separate risk management and disaster preparedness forces, and the coordination of local and central Haitian governments, are difficult to implement because of Haiti’s limited ability to fund them. Poverty, lack of building codes, and low levels of education also leave poor Haitians less able to prepare for disasters through the storage of nonperishable food, clean drinking water, and other supplies that are recommended. Emergency management education would also be extremely beneficial, as engineering curricula in Haiti do not cover designing buildings that are more resistant to earthquakes, and citizens are largely unaware of the risks they face and how they can prepare for disaster. Haiti also did not have adequate building codes before the 2010 earthquake, which resulted in many buildings being unable to withstand any tremors.

Natural disasters can magnify inequalities that were already present on the individual level as well as the global level. When aid was provided to Haiti, it wasn’t provided equitably. Those within the higher social class who had more powerful connections in their communities or more social capital were given enhanced access to aid such as shelter, tarps, or even food. This caused an increase in differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” which in turn perpetuated acts of violence and retaliation against those who secured better resources from their connections. Evidence also suggests that households with lower incomes are more vulnerable to the damages caused by natural disasters. This demonstrates that at any level, lower economic statuses translate to a bigger loss when natural disaster strikes.

The trend of natural disasters disproportionately impacting populations or countries experiencing vulnerabilities creates a cycle of disadvantage and poverty, where already low economic status countries hit by a natural disaster become even worse, making it harder to recover. Haiti comes from a lengthy history of disadvantage caused by racism and colonialism, or the acquisition of control, occupation of settlers, and economic exploitation of another country. From the time Haiti was first visited by Columbus, it has been enslaved, forced to pay reparations, and used by many countries including France and the United States for financial gain.  After its revolution, Haiti was made to pay France a modern equivalent of 21 billion US dollars under the threat of many countries refusing to acknowledge its sovereignty. This took over six generations to complete and involved borrowing money, which Haiti is still paying back today. The exploitation of Haiti contributes directly to the current economic state and lack of sufficient infrastructure to provide access to public services, such as water, sewage, and electricity.

Economic recovery after a natural disaster is complicated and requires consideration of a country and its people’s economic state and history. Though disaster relief is necessary, it is not always successful. As Chuck Goodwin notes in “Haiti Relief: Overview” (Points of View: Haiti Relief, Great Neck Publishing, 2016), there currently remains several issues of concern including the delivery of promised economic assistance in Haiti, one questionable example involving the Red Cross. The Red Cross raised $500 million in relief efforts, but has not cleared up what was actually done with all of the money. Though the Red Cross claims to have spent it in various ways to help Haiti, it’s been found that the organization only built six homes in the five years since the earthquake, while other organizations had built over nine thousand homes in that time.

Although it would be extremely difficult to remedy all of the underlying issues that contribute to a country’s low economic position, it is important to recognize them and include them in conversations regarding natural disaster prevention and relief. Haiti’s economic decline needs to be considered, especially with the extremely high number of deaths and losses it suffers during incidences of natural disaster. Knowledge about which communities are more affected by natural disasters and why could help create more powerful and effective preventative measures, such as more accessible evacuation practices.

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Natural disasters are nondiscriminatory and can cause tragedy in any community or country, but they tend to be much more devastating within areas and populations in poor economic condition. Read Univ. at Albany student Jayda Melnitsky’s commentary on JPHMPDirect.com