In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as television audiences were taken on tours of the ravaged city of New Orleans -- past the hungry and the dying and those who had lost everything, including their dignity -- it was common for reporters, politicians, entertainers and soldiers to say: "I never thought I would see this in America."
Ours is a land of plenty and privilege and technological advancement. We do not expect disasters to put us on a par with those parts of the world that lack our abundant resources. But there is something unsettling in statements that suggest that what is intolerable in the United States is understood to be normal in other parts of the world.
From many accounts, what happened in New Orleans was predictable and should have been planned for better. The response to the disaster should have been faster and better. No one deserves to go days without access to sanitary facilities, clean water, food and medical care. No one deserves to feel abandoned by their government, left vulnerable to marauding gangs.
Not the 2.6 billion people who, according to the World Health Organization, do not have access to sanitation every day.
Not the 1 billion people who do not have access to safe drinking water every day.
Not the 4,000 children who die each day in the world because they lack a hygienic environment.
We see their images only when the world is responding to what we are told is a temporary crisis: a famine here, a crop failure there, a drought, a civil war, an epidemic.
But there are millions of people for whom lack of sanitary conditions is a way of life. We should not accept that as a normal or acceptable difference between Americans and other people.
The anger and frustration that we saw in the eyes of the people in New Orleans was undoubtedly greater because this is the United States, and we know there is no lack of clean water, no lack of food, no lack of transportation services. But that same awareness was undoubtedly a source of hope. Those who languished in the Superdome and the convention center and in their attics waited too long for that help, but they had to believe that help was coming because this is the United States.
But what of those without such hope? What of those in countries where there is not an abundance to draw on, where the government may be complicit in diverting resources, not delivering them? What of countries where there is no free press to hold government accountable if it fails to deliver basic services to its people?
We in the United States will go back to our lives, shaken by this event, but secure in the knowledge that our government will develop better response plans for future disasters. What of those in the world who have no such certainty?
Can we keep in our minds the images of those babies lying listless in the arms of their desperate mothers long enough to demand an answer to the question of why thousands of children die each day for lack of clean water and a hygienic environment?
Can we demand not just a better disaster plan for Americans, but a better approach to the delivery of clean water, sufficient food, basic medical care and basic sanitation to every part of the globe?
If we think it is outrageous that Americans should go without clean water and toilet paper, infant formula and heart medicine for four or five days, then why are we not outraged that millions of people go without those necessities for their entire lives?
Lois Melina, of Moscow, Idaho, is a graduate student at Gonzaga University and a former newspaper reporter.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer