Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan after the quake

Talking to people in Hong Kong, the overriding opinion seems to be that this earthquake has instantly transformed Japan into a third-world country, as though it can never recover from this accident of history.

Which is odd, because Japan was still the third-largest economy in the world this time last week, and if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the prefecture worst affected was only about 2% of that. Yes, it's not good to get clobbered by a 8.9 earthquake and yes, there's a lot of devastation where the tsunami hit, but it doesn't appear to have been where there were major population centres; look at all the photographs and you'll see plenty of ruined low level buildings, but no skyscrapers, collapsed or standing.

That's of no solace to anybody who has lost loved ones in the quake, nor is it much comfort if a wave has washed away your house, but it could have been much worse. On the lowest estimates, Haiti's quake last year had a death toll of 90,000, and Sichuan in 2008 claimed 68,000 lives. It's obviously not a competition, and you don't get prizes for having more damage than anyone else, but the news coming out of Japan doesn't suggest it was the end of civilised life there forever.

On the other hand, Haiti didn't have many nuclear power stations.

News on the Fukushima situation keeps coming, and none of it seems good : explosions, leaks of radioactive steam and particles, parts of the building collapsing. The trouble is, few of us are experts on nuclear power, so wailing right now about how we're all going to die, or how the Japanese were irresponsible to build nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone, isn't helping the situation. This is one of those times where most of us just have to wait and see.

There are things we can do to help: you can donate to the Red Cross. Rich though Japan is, it's unlikely they had a full stock of everything required to deal with an earthquake of this scale - not least body bags, sadly.

But what isn't any use right now is for people to wring their hands about how Japan is going to collapse and be ruined forever by this. Japan is the victim of a pretty horrible combination of natural disaster and man-made problem here, but treating it as though it will never overcome this victim status isn't going to help.


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