In parts of Burma before the cyclone hit, the heat was so severe that you could walk around on a hazy day and run the risk of sunstroke.
On Thingyan, the Buddhist holiday in which people dunk each other with water, you could get a full-face full-pail drenching and be crisply sundried in minutes.
But when the storm water rose on the Irrawaddy Delta, drying out became secondary because the sun’s rays were largely gone–and so was much of the land, housing and plantings.
No one really knows how many people died, but the world press has made the point that it would have been far fewer if Burma had a better government.
The point could also be made, though, that far fewer still would have died if the world had a better system of producing and allocating its wealth.
It’s hard to come up with solid figures but it seems safe to estimate that the entire disposable wealth of the Irrawaddy Delta before the storm–that of its 3.5 million residents–could have been less than that of one table of diners at New York’s Four Seasons Grill Room.
Actually, it’s more dramatic than that.
Working with figures from Forbes magazine, the IMF, and the UNDP, it’s possible to estimate that there are between 300 and 1,000 individuals whose accumulated wealth is so vast that any one of them alone could pay each person in the Irrawaddy Delta for a year–and in the case of the richest, like Warren Buffett–could do it for six decades running and still have billions left.
One could get a visualization of this notion and its implications when flying over the Netherlands. Looking down from the Royal Dutch Airline a few weeks after Irrawaddy sank, you could see another delta, a country with much land below sea level, but where long infusions of wealth– much of it extracted from Southeast Asia by whip (see the histories of the Dutch East and West Indies Companies)–have made possible the building, behind strong dikes, by the sea, of nice, glassy homes and offices.
A cyclone Nargis would have killed anywhere–consider the recent storms in the US midwest–but whether you survive a storm depends in important part on whether you and your ancestors were rich or poor and were able to build good infrastructure (even in the United States, see New Orleans).
So the rich world is right to flagellate the Burmese generals for holding back resources as people die (a BBC World TV interviewer yesterday called it “criminal neglect”). But it is wrong to fail to note that they do the same thing daily, on a global, far more deadly, scale.