Haiti: No justification in our age
For many Alamedans, it has been days of watching the news come in from Haiti. That first night there was almost nothing – a city crumbled onto itself without electricity or communications. Then there were days of stories each more horrible than the next, smashed buildings, smashed people, civil disorder, the struggle to provide water and food and medical care. “I wish I were a doctor or a nurse,” a friend said one morning earlier this week over coffee at Alameda Towne Centre. “Something useful.” We were spending the morning working across the table from one another laptops open, documents out on the table.
And now, ten days later, the stories and images of horrors keep coming – and many of us are left with the contrast of the opulence of our lives with the poverty elsewhere. “Such a nice clean bathroom,” my friend said, coming back to the table. “Running water and paper towels.” We are both comfortable, enjoying warm soup on a rainy day. But it’s hard not to stop in our tracks and reflect on the moment – the Panera café; the lovely breads and pastries; hot, fresh teas and coffees; wireless; electricity – all in stark contrast to the rubble, chaos and pain in Haiti.
While the earthquake is stunningly horrible, suffering has been ongoing in Haiti for a long time. On one news report, an anchor talks about the mud cakes he’d seen women selling in the market slums on previous trips to Haiti – no food value, but something a mother can buy to give her child a sense of fullness. A church worker, who moved from the USA to Haiti to offer help, including prenatal care to pregnant young women, writes of a 15-year-old girl who gave birth at home for wont of transportation to a hospital – this before the quake. And when she saw the young mom a week after she’d give birth, the girl could hardly walk. The teen mom had never been to a doctor and was torn and not healing and in pain and at risk. In Haiti, only 67 percent of grade school-aged children go to school – and fewer than 30 percent of children reach sixth grade. Only 20 percent of eligible people are enrolled in secondary school.
Late last week there was a wave of outrage when luxury liners docked at a beautiful beach in Haiti, some of the cruise ship passengers apparently indifferent to the chaos on the other side of the island. And though we in Alameda are not passengers on those cruise ships, we live with these contrasts between affluence and poverty, suffering and ease. Maybe it’s not on your block, but it’s in our town, certainly, and all across the Bay Area, around the world. We live with these contrasts always; it’s part of what and how we are.
It was heartening in the days after the quake to hear that the much-maligned George W. Bush joined with the much-maligned Bill Clinton (we could learn to be not so hard on the brave people who step forward to try make a better public life for all of us) to support the fundraising and relief effort. Why does it take a tragedy in which unidentified bodies are bulldozed into mass graves to unite Democrats and Republicans in this country? Imagine if we could keep our eyes on the prize – creating a better life for all people – all the time, not just in the face of massive death and destruction?
Here on the Island, perhaps it’s time for a bit of perspective on the local debates that separate us. Why must we wait for tragedy to unite us? One lesson of Haiti is that disaster forces us to acknowledge how intimately we are tied together. A fire in a neighbor’s house may soon be our fire. If the soft-story apartment buildings constructed on landfill by the Bay collapse in an earthquake, there will be many more injured, many more dead, many more homeless – our limited resources will be stretched. After this tragedy is forgotten, will we remember to remember?
Eve Pearlman offers her take on Alameda’s stories, big and small, every Friday on The Island. Contact her at email@example.com.