Is There a Link Between Obesity and the Devastation in Haiti?

On Tuesday as we all know, there was a devastating earthquake in Haiti.  Is it connected to the floor that collapsed in a building on Wednesday?  No, that was the floor in the Weight Watchers weigh in room and the 20 people there thought that it was an earthquake.  They now realize even more how far they have to go.

According to David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist for the NY Times, the tragedy in Haiti is, “not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”  He says in his column entitled, “The Underlying Tragedy” that “On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died” and we know in our hearts that number will rise.

So why am I contending that there is a link between obesity and the devastation in Haiti?  We live in a world with pockets of obscene overabundance at the same time that there is shocking global poverty.  I would venture to guess that in a country where most people earn about $1.00 a day and close to 75% are unemployed, there is no obesity epidemic.  Yet in other countries, the combined weight of people in the room brings the floor down.  That would happen in Haiti, too, if a group of people gathered, but only because the building was poorly constructed.

We learned this week that the obesity rates in the US, among men and women, has leveled off at around 34% with children at 17% (the article doesn’t say if their rate of obesity has leveled off).  The total of overweight and obese stands at around 68%.

Do you see where I am going with this post?  In a wealthy country, with well built buildings and the infrastructure and availability of emergency services, a 7.0 earthquake will cause less damage and far less loss of life.  In a poor country, in fact one of the poorest and unhealthiest in the world, the loss of life and property is staggering and unfathomable.

David Brooks goes on to say that, “President Obama told the people of Haiti: “You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.” If he is going to remain faithful to that vow then he is going to have to use this tragedy as an occasion to rethink our approach to global poverty. He’s going to have to acknowledge a few difficult truths.”

One inescapable truth is that among wealthy nations, our foreign aid total is the lowest.  But simply giving more to a country like Haiti isn’t going to make us less obese because we have less money to buy food or Haiti more successful because they have more money to build better buildings.

We all need to evaluate our attitudes.  Being obese in a world filled with glaring poverty (with plenty of poverty in our own country) and people starving to death every day is, in my opinion, obscene.  But third world and developing countries also need to change their attitudes.  As David Brooks says, “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences”.  Unless they change their attitudes, the results of changes in our lifestyles that would benefit other countries because of a greater ability to share our abundance, will never be realized.

David Brooks says, “The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used to acknowledge that cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma.” Will it bring much needed cultural change to Haiti?  The collapsing floor at the Weight Watchers weigh in certainly made those present think again…

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