More than numbers

10 Oct

The number of confirmed dead is, and for good reason remains, one of the first things that we tend to look at when trying to gauge the relative size and impact of a disaster event. The problem is, firstly, that we tend to compare every disaster to every other disaster. And secondly, that an accurate and accepted death count can be extremely difficult to get. So, after Cyclone Nargis most every other typhoon or hurricane pales in comparison. 1,100 dead (or is it only 700-and-something?) in western Sumatra is but a fraction of the nearly 200,000 (depending on whose numbers one chooses to believe) who lost their lives in the Aeryawaddy river delta in May of 2008. Typhoon Ketsana was not even really trying with a measly 200-and-something in the Philippines. With death tolls of fewer than 100 and 20, Vietnam and Laos, respectively, barely register.

We sit in our cubicles in DC or Canberra or Bangkok or even Da Nang and quickly assess and rank the disaster zones on the basis of a few drops of ink on paper. We make sweeping decisions about where the resources go based on numbers. Out of context it’s too easy to let those number seem small. Only 20 dead…

In the United States’ Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system, a “disaster” is defined any single event that results in the death of over 100 people. More than 25 trauma victims is a “mass casualty incident” (MCI).

I don’t know about you, but even 20… 20 people is a number that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I have hundreds of acquaintances, but I’m not sure that I can count 20 close friends. 20 dead – and that’s the lowest number in the spate of recent disasters – is already a big number. 20 dead, I cannot directly comprehend in real terms.

Or 100. That was more or less the number of people in the head office at my previous job. Getting a picture of the entire staff required the photographer to go up a hook-and-ladder. About 100 dead following Typhoon Ketsana in Vietnam feels huge.

What about 300? Or 1,100? Maybe 1,100 is but a fraction of 70,000-something who perished in the Sichuan earthquake. But small as it may be by comparison, it represents an ocean of human suffering nevertheless.

We were right to feel that the massive death tolls in Myanmar and China demanded our attention, our action. But we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of in-urgency by the smaller numbers that we’re seeing in Asia right now.

Whether by war or natural disaster or any other cause…

A death toll of only one is already a human tragedy.

One Response to “More than numbers”


  1. Mo’ media, mo’ media, mo’ media « where the diaspora and the development industry meet - 23 April, 2010

    […] – images of crumbled buildings and people weeping for their dead and talking heads going on about numbers. I am talking about coverage of aid agencies and issues in the […]

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