THE NEW WORKER

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 1st September 2017


The cheap lives of the poor

THE NEWS last week that the giant Tropical Storm Harvey was headed to Houston in Texas led to a heart-sinking feeling of hope that this time the richest nation on earth would cope better than it did over the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina — but also fears that it would be the same terrible story over again.

So far the people of Houston seem to have fared a little better — there was some pre-planning to provide shelter for people who had to be rescued from their homes. The death toll reported so far is just 18 but that could rise a lot because rescuers still have a long way to go to reach all the homes that are flooded and, as with Katrina, there will be some elderly and infirm people who will succumb to the effects of the trauma even after they have been rescued.

But the same pattern of the worst effects hitting the poor and vulnerable hardest are just the same as in Katrina. In both disasters there was plenty of warning from meteorologists of what was coming. One of the worst sights shown on television after Katrina was a flooded parking lot full yellow school buses that could have been used to get hundreds of the most vulnerable out of the area. But although the dangers of flooding in that area were well known there was no official local contingency plan to use them.

Once again, with Harvey, the essence of the evacuation plan was an announcement from the mayor for people to leave — all very well for those who had vehicles. But the Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner, then changed his mind after learning that in the Katrina disaster the order to leave caused panic and traffic chaos with people stuck in jams for many hours. A lot of people died sitting in their cars.

Again, forethought and planning would have saved many. It is better to evacuate before a disaster, not during it. A picture from Houston of elderly people sitting helpless in their flooded residential care home has shocked the world. Those people should have been evacuated in good time before the storm reached Houston.

And rescuing people from flooded homes has been done by local volunteers with access to boats — heroic, but slow and poorly organised. Families with young children and elderly people have been forced to wait, wet, cold and without food or clean water for nearly a week, and there are still many waiting.

The basic problem is neo-liberal economics and austerity cuts to local authorities. When local authorities are battling to keep schools open and other basic essentials, setting aside large sums for flood prevention and dealing with ‘once in a lifetime’ disasters that ‘may never happen’ is seen as a waste of money.

The rich want their taxes cut and if this leads to thousands of poor people dying in ‘unforeseen’ disasters, which were actually predicted as all too likely, the rich can blame nature and bad luck and not their own greed. It is exactly the same story as Grenfell Tower in London. It is the same story with cuts to the fire and ambulance services in Britain and to the plans to run trains without guards. That is another big disaster waiting to happen here.

The contrast in dealing with natural disasters in socialist and progressive countries is stark. In Cuba and China weather warnings are taken seriously, people are evacuated and casualties are very few. Earthquakes are not so predictable but where they do happen in China the army is sent in immediately with well-prepared plans to rescue people and to deliver them to safety. And the reconstruction plans and rehoming happen very quickly. Such planning and readiness needs a big budget but it is cheap compared with failing to plan.

And then came the news of the flooding in Bangladesh — with thousands dead already and the full toll not yet known — if it ever will be. A nation of poor people in a place very vulnerable to flooding as global warming and rising sea levels continue to take their toll. It is a country that does a mountain of factory production work on very low wages for multinational companies but which does not have the money to invest in flood defences and contingency planning that is obviously needed. Those multinationals regard brown lives as very cheap and not worth paying the necessary taxes to fund the changes.

So our media is full of news of Tropical Storm Harvey but there is hardly a mention of Bangladesh.