The day after?

The day after the water recedes will look pretty much the same as the day before

Muhammad Hamid Zaman August 30, 2022
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

It seems like the only policy working these days is public shaming. Politicians who seem to be adamantly unwilling to do fundraising are shamed into doing one. Those who choose to sit in their comfortable homes can be convinced to visit the flood affected areas, again thanks to public shaming. But public shaming is not an ethical choice. Policies — especially those that can bring relief to the poorest — should be based on empathy and decency, not image and worry about getting shamed in the media.

Public shaming is also unsustainable, unlikely to work in the long run. The water will recede, sooner or later. At that point, we will find destroyed homes and uprooted lives. We will see shattered dreams and desperate souls. At that point, most likely, there will be other political nonsense consuming us — as it was in the days up to this point. At that point, we will most likely be yelling in the rallies and calling each other evil names on television. There will be abundant discussion of the grand non-existent conspiracies, backroom deals that do nothing for the poor, and a whole spectrum of ridiculous predictions about the future. Those who are in the business of shaming will be back to their inane business.

The day after the water recedes will look pretty much the same as the day before — full of apathy, disregard and selfishness. Those who survive, and are forced to move from their homes, are likely to struggle. It is indeed commendable that we can mobilise our spirits, energies and resources when we are in the moment, but no one would check up on them years, months or even weeks after that moment. There will be little in the way of mental health for those who have lost everything, few jobs for those whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and little in the way of sympathy beyond empty rhetoric and a few tweets.

These floods may be unprecedented, but we have been through difficult times before. We have seen great floods in the past. We have experienced murder and mayhem. We have witnessed intolerance and bigotry of the highest proportion. We have lived through young children raped and murdered. Our “never again” moment never came. It is unlikely to come if we are unwilling to change. The day after the grand tragedy, be it driven by high waters or high hate, our memory starts to fail and the inertia takes over. This inertia is shaped by a fundamental disconnect between which lives matter and which do not. It is also created by an unwillingness to change the way we do business. Whether that business is in the form of real estate transactions and illegal constructions, or in the form of lack of proactive policies to protect the vulnerable, or the business to shielding the powerful from all accountability of their actions.

If we want the day after to be different than it has been for so long, and for so many, the fundamental aspect that needs to change is our approach towards disasters — whether they are natural or driven by human action. We have to recognise that these disasters do not end their impact when the water recedes, when the earth stops shaking, or when the terrorists destroy the fabric of the society. These events in and of themselves lead to protracted challenges. Addressing them requires an end-to-end approach, a continuum of action that starts from proactive policies to protect the vulnerable, to providing support years after the incident.

For millions across the country a better today depends on protection from the force of nature. A better tomorrow depends on protecting from the evil of apathy.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2022.

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