Asia looks at Katrina coverage and draws conclusions

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have found strong resonance in the countries of South and East Asia— from India to Indonesia. It was inevitable that the people and the media here should have drawn comparisons between the American response in New Orleans and what they themselves had experienced.

I happened to be visiting some of the countries of Southeast Asia when they were just recovering from the effects of the tsunami, and was in India both during the tsunami and the more recent Mumbai (Bombay) deluge that flooded the city the month before Katrina hit the Gulf coast. As the images and the experience of the Asian disasters were still fresh in the region's memory, this put me in a position to observe their reaction to the American tragedy.

Above all, the Asian people were shocked by what they saw as the callousness of the public towards the victims and the seeming breakdown of civil society. Some commentators seized on it claiming that it showed that America is a sick and decadent society, a standard Islamist charge. American religious and other volunteer organizations came in for particularly heavy criticism for their failure in the hour of greatest need.

It is worth noting that except for Pakistan and Bangladesh, the countries of the region are not anti—American. American policies are sometimes criticized but there is none of the visceral anti—Americanism that seems to be hardwired in Islamic countries. Even the fashionable anti—Americanism paraded by the intellectuals of Europe and Britain has few takers in India.

It is different with the media. The international media has greater presence in the region than in the U.S. The BBC competes directly with the CNN. Anti—Americanism is a regular feature on the BBC World, the 'world's most infuriatingly sanctimonious TV' channel, as the conservative columnist Swapan Dasgupta called it. Utterly dependent on what the international broadcasters showed them, the public drew conclusions based on that input, regardless of accuracy or lack thereof.

What struck TV watchers was not just the administrative sloth and crime, which happen everywhere, but the descent of New Orleans into complete anarchy. In Dasgupta's words,

'the organized armed gangs looting empty houses, ransacking of shops, widespread instances of rape and the desertion of one—third of the police force, made New Orleans resemble a Central African town in the middle of regime change.'

In an unguarded moment a CNN reporter described it as being 'like the Third World without aid workers.' He might have added without the crime wave. This contrast between civic behavior in New Orleans and during the Asian disasters was what struck observers most.

The Indian columnist S. Gurumurthy pointed out that

'even though the state had absconded in Mumbai as much as in New Orleans, not a single case of rape or molestation was reported. Not a single case of theft. Not a single case of lawlessness. Not just when the killer rains hit Mumbai, even when the killer tsunami hit the east coast of India and thousands died, and hundreds of thousands had to be fed, the story was no different. Every one was fed. No one went hungry.'

It was the same in Sri Lanka where the destruction was even greater.

Gurumurthy saw breakdown of traditional values as the culprit:

'The reason is not difficult to find. India is essentially a tradition and community—run — and not a system or state—run — nation. State too a distant a mechanism for instant intervention, particularly in a crisis. It is ...the family, neighborhood and community, which act as social safety net normally and in emergency. The West has undermined this social safety net in the name of unbridled individualism. With the result the West has become state—dependent...'

Many Americans could be found to agree with him. Another failure that struck Asians, with their strong sense of community, was the seeming absence of voluntary agencies, especially religious organizations. Dasgupta's comment was typical:

'... what I find completely inexplicable is why there weren't armies of volunteers bringing food, water and medicines into New Orleans in the first five days.

'In the aftermath of every flood or earthquake in India, we see home—grown organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission, ...RSS ... rushing to the site. In the U.S., we discovered that the American Red Cross had no foot soldiers at hand. ...Have voluntary organizations disappeared from the U.S.?'

He came down especially hard on the Christian organizations.

'More significant was the irrelevance of Church bodies. The evangelists who litter the landscape of the Deep South ...are cash rich. ...How come we didn't hear of them providing solace to their flock and engaging in Christian charity in New Orleans? We didn't hear of fire—breathing padres organizing Christian vigilante squads to protect the honor of vulnerable women.'

Of late evangelists have acquired a bad image in the region because of their efforts to take advantage of the recent natural disasters to gain converts. The antics of a few high—profile evangelists like Benny Hinn, under investigation for tax fraud, and Ron Watts, expelled for various irregularities including visa violations, has given them a reputation for hypocrisy.

It is no use pointing out that New Orleans is not America, or that the city is known for sleazy corruption. Also, there was no social breakdown in times of other disasters. I was myself caught in Hurricane Alicia when it struck the Texas coast in August 1983. There were 21 deaths, quite large considering that the area is sparsely populated, and extensive damage, but there was no anarchy. People and businesses helped each other until normalcy returned.

But the damage is done. People will only remember the worst of what they saw and read. New Orleans may remember the physical destruction, but the world outside sees it in moral terms. The city may be rebuilt, but it will be a long and hard haul before America can rebuild its image as a moral, caring nation.

N.S. Rajaram divides his time between Oklahoma City and Bangalore, India.