Tuesday, September 07, 2010

On the flu, and a tale of two earthquakes

Apologies to my (very few) readers for the lack of blogging. Last week we got the flu - first my daughter, then me, then my wife - and we have been basically out of commission for 10 days (only now getting back to normal). Some of the flu viruses are wily antagonists, cleverly hijacking the body's cellular machinery to replicate themselves prolifically, and it seems to take a lot of the body's considerable resources to get rid of them (with much collateral damage in the form of large amounts of inflammatory cytokines, it has to be said).

In the meantime, there was a large earthquake in Christchurch, about 400km from where we live: 7.1 magnitude in the Richter scale. (It probably was what woke me up at 4:30am on Saturday morning, though I didn't consciously feel anything and in my state at the time it could have been anything). We don't know many people in Christchurch, but thankfully there seem to have been few casualties and no deaths as a direct result of the quake. Lots of damage, yes, but even then few building collapses. Yet compare this with the outcome of Haiti's January earthquake in Léogâne, measuring 7.0 magnitude in the Richter scale (a bit less than the Christchurch one, and also centered close to the surface): the estimates for deaths directly attributable to the quake range from 92,000 to 230,000 people; hundreds of thousands of people remain living in tent camps; the capital city remains shattered. Why the difference?

The time of the day the shaking happened may have made a difference (at least according to the useful summary in the wikipedia page on the Christchurch earthquake, which was up a day after the event). Yet I'm not sure I can see a clear causal story for how this is supposed to work: in Christchurch the earthquake happened when most people were sleeping inside buildings, in Haiti when most people were out and about; you would think the wee hours of the morning, when lots of people are basically unconscious under potentially falling objects, are the most dangerous time for an earthquake, but apparently not. Anybody care to enlighten me?

There is also the fact that most houses in New Zealand are timber framed, which means they bend a bit with the shaking, rather than quickly breaking or pancaking on top of their occupants, whereas most houses in Haiti are not, and that New Zealand has a strong building code that is actually enforced. But ultimately the factors that make the biggest difference seem to be the level of development and the quality of institutions of accountability. From the abstract of a recent (2005) paper by Matthew Kahn (gated):
Using a new data set on annual deaths from disasters in 73 nations from 1980 to 2002, this paper tests several hypotheses concerning natural-disaster mitigation. Though richer nations do not experience fewer natural disasters than poorer nations, richer nations do suffer less death from disaster. Economic development provides implicit insurance against nature's shocks. Democracies and nations with higher-quality institutions suffer less death from natural disaster. Because climate change is expected to increase the frequency of natural disasters such as floods, these results have implications for the incidence of global warming.
Higher levels of economic development and higher quality institutions make it possible to draft and enforce building codes in a relatively uncorrupt way, for example. And good institutions of accountability put the fear of their constituents into politicians, who may become very responsive to their needs in the aftermath of a disaster. Furthermore, in open societies information flows relatively freely and in generally useful ways: consider how Twitter was used to quickly aggregate information - and some misinformation - about the quake soon afterwards, particularly through the hashtag #eqnz; it's almost enough to make me rethink my principled avoidance of the service. Of course, this is itself only possible because the Internet backbone links and the electrical power supplies were not too badly damaged or were quickly repaired, and worked fine to begin with, something that economic development itself makes possible. It's another case of the unfairness of country borders: nature is harsher when you are born in a poor country (or in a non-democratic, not very accountable regime). By the same token, the best insurance against the destructiveness of nature seems to be economic development and democracy.

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