September 17, 2005
The Elderly: Helpless and Left to Die. Don’t know about it? Well it didn’t happen in the USA.
[editor’s note: this post was “pasted” in — it appeared originally at the old Dawson’s Danube site, which is archived here.]
The outrageous coverage of Hurricane Katrina here in Austria and Germany has included many references to “third world” similarities. See, for example, Ray’s blog posting concerning Stern magazine’s editorial, “Somalia in America’s South.” The sneering arrogance, the gruesome Schadenfreude and the completely over the top moralizing reminded me of something that occurred two years ago in the United States, which also elicited “third world” references.
You will recall that on August 14, 2003, an enormous power failure occurred across a huge chunk of the United States and parts of Canada. On September 5, 2003, I made the following blog entry here:
After the blackout that hit the US and Canada, the next issue of Austria’s profil magazine contained a two-page story titled “A Bit of the Third World” and with the following eye-catching pull-quote:
Why would George W. Bush want to fix up Baghdad’s infrastructure, when there is so much to repair at home?
Clever! Whoa, that’s like really puttin’ things in perspective for me!
This “article” is not labeled as an opinion piece or guest column; it’s just an “article” in the International section of this weekly news magazine. But I’ll translate the first paragraph and you tell me if you think this “article” is actually an opinion piece written by someone who is obsessed with … you guessed it:
One thing you can always say about George W. Bush: he makes himself scarce in frightening situations. On [9/11] … he found himself in Florida and last week, as large parts of the northeast fell into darkness, he was fortunate enough to be in San Diego collecting dough for his reelection campaign, though things were looking gloomy on the other side of the american continent.
This is an opinion piece, whether or not they label it as such. It is written by Martin Kilian. I assume this is Martin Kilian, professional America-hater, who writes for Weltwoche (Switzerland).
The blackout occurred 14. August, and this Kilian “article” appeared in the 18. August issue of profil. I tell you that just to give you a bit of an idea of when one might expect an article about a major event to first appear on the newsstands.
On 11. August, Le Figaro first reported that “the heat wave is killing people” in France.
On 14. August, according to the Washington Post, French government officials reported that at least 3,000 people had died from the heat wave.
By the 21st, the Post reported that the French government had acknowledged that up to 10,000 people may have died.
On 29. August, this CNN report indicated that the toll was actually over 11,000.
Wouldn’t you say that 11,000 deaths from heat in a modern and industrialized country such as France could also be compared to the “Third World”? Okay, maybe that’s unfair — we don’t want to be like Kilian, after all. But at least it’s some pretty big news! Or is it?
The 18. August, 25. August and 1. September issues of profil, as far as I can tell, make absolutely no mention whatsoever of the heat deaths in France..
I later followed-up with a few other postings, including:
- Anecdotal evidence of the Austrian public’s complete lack of awareness that anything tragic had occurred in France in August 2003;
- An update from Sept 11, 2003, to remark that profil had still not written a word on the subject.
- A Sept 20, 2003, posting quoting an Austrian journalist’s own disgust at the treatment in his media of the two incidents (the American power failure and the French heatwave.)
You know where I’m going with all of this… In light of the press’s treatment of the Katrina situation, it is worth revisiting their absolute silence over a nearby catastrophe — totally preventable in ways that the Katrina catastrophe was not — of almost unbelievable proportions.
When I sat down to write about this today, I realized I had not “checked the facts” since September of 2003. In much the same way that projections about Katrina’s death toll could turn out to have been wildly off, perhaps the original reports about the deaths during France’s 2003 heatwave also ended up being exaggerations.
They were not exaggerations. Eurosurveillance (“Peer-reviewed European information on communicable disease surveillance and control”), an organization that is funded by the European Commission and which, in 2005, “embarked on the process of becoming the regular scientific communication of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)”, recently published a report entitled “Summary of the mortality impact assessment of the 2003 heat wave in France.”
The analysis of death certificates given by the departmental health offices allowed InVS to produce a first estimate on 28 August of 11 435 excess deaths (excess of 55%) between 1 and 15 August 2003 . On 25 September, INSERM estimated the cumulative excess deaths between 1 and 20 August at 14 800 (excess of 60%) .The impact was greater for women (70% increase in excess total mortality) than for men (40% increase in excess mortality)(1). This was the case even for same age groups. Excess mortality reached 20% in the 45-74 year age group, 70% in the 75-94 year age group and 20% in people aged 94 years and over .
INSERM also showed that during the last third of the month of August and the month of September the mortality had reached the usual level . October and November 2003 showed the usual death rates in every region.
The impact was greater for women (70% increase in excess total mortality) than for men (40% increase in excess mortality)(1). This was the case even for same age groups. Excess mortality reached 20% in the 45-74 year age group, 70% in the 75-94 year age group and 20% in people aged 94 years and over 
[see the original for footnote references]
Paris itself experienced a disastrous 142% excess in the mortality rate, meaning more than twice the usual number of people died there between August 1 and August 19, 2003. This occurred even though the temperature delta in Paris (+6.7) was no higher than, say, Toulouse (+6.6), where the mortality rate suffered an excess of “just” 36%.
To put Paris’s numbers in a Katrina perspective: according to today’s New York Times online, the death toll in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — which, I know, will rise — stands at 812. The excess death count in Paris alone between August 1 and August 19, 2003, was more than double the current Katrina figure: 1,854. And these were deaths from heat. I don’t mean to underestimate heat, which I know can be a terrible killer of human beings. But I just don’t believe that the heat wave of 2003 can be compared to a Category 4–5 hurricane putting an entire major city under water.
These numbers from France were and are extremely tragic and sad. Yet let me tell you the following with great certainty:
Athough France is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Austria…
- These staggering figures are basically unknown to the general Austrian public.
- While a massive and preventable human catastrophe occurred within 800 miles of Vienna, Austria’s most significant political and news weekly magazine, profil, remained absolutely silent about it. (Note: I did not track other magazines, such as the usual German suspects Stern and Der Spiegel.)
- Every Austrian Tom, Dick and Harry (Tomas, Richard und Harald) knows with certainty that a) the American South (thousands and thousands of miles away) just experienced a massive hurricane; b) it was George W. Bush’s fault that assistance was not as timely as it should have been; c) a major American city descended into third-world chaos; d) surely nothing similar could ever happen in Austria.
I want to close by noting something that I think is important. I realize the gruesome and somewhat catty nature of a tit-for-tat blog entry that compares and contrasts natural disasters in order to make a political point. It’s embarrassing even to discuss the French tragedy in these terms. But the overwhelming bias and arrogance displayed by the European media towards the United States should not go unanswered. The seering heat in the fever swamps of the European press offices blinds its occupants to nearby tragedies that cannot be blamed on the United States. For the sake of a hopeful, future return to sense and balance, the double-standards and hypocrisies must be exposed whenever they are as glaringly obvious as they are in the case of these two natural disasters.
[If you are interested in seeing some of the things web-accessible articles I have read in connection with Katrina, the U.S. government response, and the French heat wave of 2003, you can visit my del.icio.us bookmarks at http://del.icio.us/billdawson/katrina.]