The citizens of Kathmandu are leaving town in any way possible. So far at least 100,000 have reportedly left, though, as always, the official numbers hardly give the full story. More like double that, probably. Where are they going? To family homes in far-off villages – to stay with relatives. The people leaving include students who are off for the next month anyway, people with families outside the valley and others who simply see no positives in staying for the immediate future.
The hospitals are full, food and water are short and getting shorter, sanitation is becoming atrocious and waste management is overwhelmed and fuel supplies are uneven. I have seen police managing the queue at gas stations. These are conditions that invite disease. I don’t think any actual cases of water-borne cholera or typhus have been reported, but I am not able to monitor Nepali news and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that all it takes is a few cases and suddenly there are many. How many more will leave? Again, a matter of opinion. Some say maybe 300K, some say between 500K -1M will leave. That 10-15% of the total.
Aryan’s family is leaving. His sister (a second year college student whom I spoke to at length, bright, friendly, informed and wearing Stanford sweatshirt given to her by her oldest brother who lives in London) and brother, parents, two cousins, two uncles and possibly more. They are going to a village in far eastern Nepal, nearly to the Indian border, called Budhabar. Why? Because of health concerns that I just mentioned, plus the house next door is listing in their direction. It probably won’t collapse. Then again, all it might take is another quake of 5-6 magnitude. They will come back in a month and decide what to do next.
Money is pouring into Nepal. Japan: $100M; USA: $100M, China, the EU, a rich guy from Hong Kong gave $10M. I have no idea what the total is. Where is the money going? To the government. There are teams of specialists arriving from several countries: the Chinese dog-sniffing teams, the Italian doctors with tents and food, India is sending more teams, but only to assist Indian nationals. Yes, that’s right. Bhutan has sent a medical team.
And yes, there really are 100s of thousands of meals arriving. What are they doing? Nothing much yet. There is no delivery system. The government of Nepal has known for decades that another quake was coming. There is a pattern of major quakes every 80 years. There has been virtually no preparation. And now that billions are pouring in to deal with this catastrophe? The politicians are arguing about what to do with the money. Not so much on party lines, but they can’t decide how to deliver it and who deserves it and how to determine who does not. We’re thinking, “Can’t they get anything right?”
The thing is, if Nepal had been preparing for a major earthquake, they would likely have been addressing the infrastructure all along: the roads, sanitation, waste management, emergency medical response, water. The direct benefits of that kind of long term investment would have put them in a much better position than they are in now. Now, they are overwhelmed, if not simply paralyzed. Were I in their position, I don’t know that I would be doing anything differently. Even without the quake and with the money, they would likely be doing the same thing. Where to start? Which is why I say everything is everything. And maybe this is where Nepal has already been for a long time. Impasse.
But, no. We are not helpless. Aryan and his trusty band of volunteers, his A-team of about eight guys, including the usual suspects from Bhaktapur (Aadarsha, Aadesh and Subas) are creative and resourceful. They have collected food donations from the manufacturers including chicken pizza, rice, oats, soap and something that looks like tooth powder. They are meeting in Aryan’s neighborhood and divvying up the loads to all the motorcycles and heading for Bhaktapur, where there are allegedly people who need these things. I have three boxes in front of me on the scooter, a passenger carrying two more boxes and my back-pack slung front ways. Wearing my rain gear. We head out. When we collect in Bhaktapur, apparently the imagined need does not exist. OK, that was Plan A.
What’s Plan B? Plan B is to head out further into the hills to a village that apparently has no food. Aryan had been contacted by the VDC, the Village Development Council. This is a longer haul further east and uphill, eventually turning off the main road onto a winding, stony, rutted and muddy road for another 3 KM into the hills. With my passenger and load. Dodging trucks and other motorbikes. Right.
When we arrive, apparently they are not in quite such dire circumstances as advertised. At least that’s the appearance of things. OK, Plan C. There is discussion. Yes, there are smaller clots of hillside residents nearby and even within sight who are in need. What should we give them? We start carrying rice up the hill. We get halfway. There is more discussion. We go back. I immediately get the feeling that we are now the government of Nepal.
Aryan goes back down the hill and becomes engaged in animated conversation with uniforms, elders, local guys. And by the way, if it isn’t already obvious, the only people engaged in conversation about any of this are guys. I descend the hill and observe. Others join the conversation and all goods coalesce on main street again. Eventually it is decided that teams of two volunteers each will take some of the food to several small enclaves outside the main village area. The issues here are indeed a microcosm of the collective condition. It’s hilarious and instructive and also sad. Aryan will not give donations to people who do not need them. He also does not trust the people in front of him to give the donations to the ones who need them. Does Aryan even trust the people in front of him to tell him the truth about who needs help?
I do not understand a word of what I am hearing. It is gesture, repetition, the tone of frustration that provide clues. The conversation is about who really needs help. How is that decided? How bad off do you have to be to deserve aid? The sad part is that in Nepal, everyone arguably needs help. And the nation is in the midst of a catastrophe. Who doesn’t need help? My sherpa family? No, they do not need help. But they would also not be asking for any.
The instructive part is that we in America are also having this conversation. We in America have also had our catastrophes that raised this issue: Katrina, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. We’ve also had our villains and heroes emerge from both. One of the ongoing and intensifying wars in Congress is about who needs help and what kind of help do they deserve? And what, if any, responsibility do we all have to make sure that those who need help get it? Unfortunately, the issues that frame and drive such a discussion are scarcity and the zero-sum view of the world; that if you get more, it means that I get less. This question of responsibility is not being explored at all in the conversation in front of me.
I said this conversation was hilarious. It was in some sense. But don’t get me wrong. There is a tragedy unfolding here that did not end when the aftershocks faded. As an American, I certainly have no place to hide. After all the acrimony and years of legal wrangling, the legislative battles in the US over our issues, we have no grounds for pointing fingers nor any easy answers. I take no satisfaction in recognizing that these issues are playing out in yet another situation, delaying the delivery of much needed basic life support.