Food Not Med

Listening to the radio this morning to reporters visiting the epicenter of the Haitian quake, I heard locals complaining that no one had come to help them.  Locals said they need food, water, and shelter; when rains come they will get cold.  The reporters, however, seemed obsessed with noting that locals need medicine.  They also focused on local efforts to dig out and bury their dead.

Given their desperate need for food, water, and shelter, it seems unlikely to me that medicine is such a priority.  Furthermore, experts say, dead bodies are just not a problem:

Corpses do not represent a public health threat. When death is due to the initial impact of the event and not because of disease, dead bodies have not been associated with outbreaks.

I’m not sure to what extent we are seeing a bias in Haitians, in the reporters, or in their US audience.  But surely epicenter Haitians have more important worries than medicine and dead bodies.

Added:  The contrast between the oh so visible US concern and US planes flying around Haiti with loudspeakers warning locals not to try to boat it to the US is quite striking.  Clearly at some level US folks realize they could help Haitians most by letting them immigrate.  If we (thought we) cared less and were instead eager to gain migrant farm workers and household servants, we might end up helping Haitians more.

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  • Millian

    Focusing on the lack of a luxury good (never mind the global platitudes about human rights) – definitely bias on the rich country side.

  • Karl Mattingly

    Hi Robin,

    I really enjoy your blog – thanks.

    Perhaps the biase is generated by the different needs [and motivations] of the Haitians, the media back office [production] and front office [reporters]?

    The Haitian needs are as you sensibly identify. Timeframe – now and forever.

    However the media’s production need is “product” and it sells better with a bit of “spice”. Timeframe – until it goes stale, and try to keep it fresh as long as you can.

    And to be fair to middle class reporters from nice suburbs in developed countries sitting in the midst of all that distressing human pain and suffering, maybe there is an immediacy for the reporters in securing medicine – it makes them [the reporters] feel better too -“I’m here to report and in doing so help” feels much better than “I’m here to exploit this pain and suffering”? And reporters are human and medecine is a comforting rationalisation or maybe the human imperative at ground zero is to want to help “right now”. Timeframe immediate.

    Each have their own logic and I wouldn’t dare pass judgement – you probably have to be there.

    And in the long run, your logic will be the one that prevails as the “noise” falls away. But only then.

    You make me think. Thanks!

    Karl.

  • diogenese

    Reporters sell stories — somebody who was seriously injured and needs a life-saving surgery is a more interesting story, than someone suffering from hunger. Hunger is mundane. A crushed limb is a much more vivid picture than hunger.

    From what I can see, the actual medical response, has been very strategic, and really focused on medical care necessary after a natural disaster (i.e. trauma surgery, ortho, etc.). Setting up surgical centers to triage these patients.

    The other reason for a focus problem would be the fact that physicians are do-gooders, and probably more physicians have gone than are required. They are also from high SES group and hence media finds it easy to work with them to build a compelling story. Supermarket owners are not going to be able to provide any special skill that will help in this case. There is no food & shelter volunteers (i.e. this is the army and the red cross).

    Anyway — most relief organizations don’t want you to donate anything in particular (medicine, canned food or anything) — they want $$ — so they can spend it on whats actually needed.

  • Hal Finney

    That’s interesting that the bodies are not a threat, I did not know that. Reactions to the smell of death have been prominent in the coverage, people wearing masks or daubing their noses with pungent creams to cover the smell. I don’t know what the smell of death is, which makes it hard to identify with what they are experiencing. I’ve never heard a reporter attempt to describe the smell – is this because most people have smelled decomposing bodies many times, and I am unusual in never having had this experience?

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  • Bill

    According to Wiki, the following should be added re dead bodies you may have lying around your house:

    “To those in close contact with the dead, such as rescue workers, there is a health risk from chronic infectious diseases which spread by direct contact, for example: hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, enteric (intestinal) pathogens and tuberculosis.

    The substances cadaverine and putrescine are produced during the decomposition of animal bodies, and both give off a foul odor.[3] They are toxic if massive doses are ingested (2g per kg of body weight in rats for putrescine, a larger dose for cadaverine)[4], causing adverse effects. If these figures are assumed to apply to humans, a 60 kg (132lb) person would be significantly affected by 120g (4oz) of pure putrescine, and would show no effects at all for a tenth of that dose. By way of comparison the similar substance spermine, found in semen, is over 3 times as toxic.”

    Do you ever do any research for this site, or do you just put it out there for everyone to consume?

  • Bill

    I checked some other materials and how this is presented is closer to the original post than to my first comment, although the original post, I think, unduly minimized risk. I Apologize.

  • Bill

    Here is a better link on the subject with better balance and some interesting analysis: http://www.psandman.com/col/tsunami2.htm

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  • http://www.superbad.com John Sabotta

    Overcoming Bias is nothing less than concentrated cadaverine, applied by injection via HIV-contaminated needle.

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  • Singularity7337

    There’s also been some recent pieces that describe a situation of too many doctors. They actually need nurses–and doctors later.

  • Randall Reetz

    Maybe, just maybe, the death of friends and relatives is disturbing at a deeply fundamental level. Maybe, just maybe, this overwhelming reaction of loss is magnified to inhuman levels when these deaths are entering your deepest and oldest brain ALL DAY LONG. Maybe, just maybe, these reporters are empathizing with the locals at a deep level, reflecting accurately their situation, emotional as it inescapably is.

    The content and leaning of this blog is so overwhelmingly and embarrassingly privileged and entitled and removed.

    Maybe just maybe, it is really difficult to accumulate, prepare, and distribute 3 million meals three times a day across a nation with no stable infrastructure of any kind.

    Are you in Haiti? Are you working in a significant way to directly effect the effective feeding of 9 million meals a day? Please!

    Randall

    • Nick Tarleton

      Maybe, just maybe, the death of friends and relatives is disturbing at a deeply fundamental level. Maybe, just maybe, this overwhelming reaction of loss is magnified to inhuman levels when these deaths are entering your deepest and oldest brain ALL DAY LONG. Maybe, just maybe, these reporters are empathizing with the locals at a deep level, reflecting accurately their situation, emotional as it inescapably is.

      You’re probably right, and we should be understanding, but why should this mean we can’t talk about factual accuracy at the same time?

      The content and leaning of this blog is so overwhelmingly and embarrassingly privileged and entitled and removed.

      That doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes true.