Why Haiti disaster relief efforts cannot be applied domestically

Like most people, I’ve found the news and images coming from Haiti in the aftermath of the January’s earthquake appalling and upsetting.

The sheer amount of devastation and orders of magnitude loss of life make the story compelling by itself. Coupled on top of Haiti’s ignominious history, the situation touches us for its Job-like quality: ”How much misery can one people withstand?”

I’ve been pleased at the outpouring of support for Haiti. Part of me feared a sense of ‘crisis fatigue’ after the pacific tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, in addition to the fact that our economy is so weak. And, let’s be honest–Haitians are very much ‘others’–darker skinned, with a French-sounding language that likely doesn’t play well in more conservative/isolationist quarters of the U.S.

A recent telethon raised more than sixty million dollars. The advent of the ‘text donation’ has let literally millions of people contribute to the relief effort by the Red Cross in ten dollar allotments.

This single advance has changed fundraising forever. I shudder to think how politicians will use this feature to raise money for campaigns. [I’m only glad this tactic wasn’t widely available in the 2008 Presidential campaign!]

On top of the monetary outpouring, many of our nation’s medical centers have sent teams of volunteers to help Haiti recover from the earthquake, including one that I know fairly well.

Volunteering to aid in disaster relief is noble work; given all the media attention, it’s downright sexy.

But I’m left with the sinking feeling that after the TV lights dim, there will be a LOT more to do in Haiti. For a long time to come. After all, our attention for one news story can only last so long.

Even more unsettling for me is this fundamental question: Why are we so good at culling resources for tragedies, and so lacking in generosity and imagination with the entrenched problems close by?

There are obvious answers:

1. ”If it bleeds, it leads.” This news producers’ lament/mantra says something about us at our core. We’re both grotesquely fascinated by carnage and we’re empathic creatures with a genuine desire to help.

2. Charity–whether religious, spiritual, ingrained or acquired, most of us are taught some sort of values that tell us to help those less fortunate than us.

3. Humanitarian disasters bespeak urgency. Systemic problems require real change, not just supply delivery.

4. The Powell Doctrine (as in Colin): Natural disaster relief efforts are time-limited engagements with clear goals agreed upon by broad consensus. The same cannot be said about say, urban poverty in the U.S.

I can’t help but wonder what if?

What if for just one day/week/month/year we felt the same way about the lack of access to care, the disparities in outcomes, the uncontainable costs of our health care? What if we could bring in supply trucks full of rations and blankets and tents to those at the margins of our society and provide succor in some lasting way?

A medical center that supports its employees in their heroic work–providing infrastructure (supplies, support) and (gasp!) full salary and benefits–certainly makes a win-win out of tragedy. The medical center gets good PR while doing real good.

Anyway, at a minimum, it’s a challenging thought exercise: Given the awareness, the attention, and the resources, how could we take our collective generosity and apply it to our most intractable problems?

John Schumann is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at GlassHospital.

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