The catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, was the 9/11 of humanitarian disasters. The death and misery that resulted were beamed out to a global television audience, unleashing public sympathy on an unprecedented scale. More than half of all U.S. households donated to the relief operation. But whereas the government responses to the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 have ensured that that event has remained at the center of global attention for the decade since, memories of the more than 200,000 Haitians slain by the earthquake, and of the approximately 4,000 more who died of cholera after it, have quickly faded.
To his discussion of this receding tragedy, Paul Farmer brings passion, medical expertise, and a long and intimate engagement with Haiti. His account of the year following the earthquake works on three levels: personal, practical, and analytic. Farmer's wife is Haitian, and so among the thousands whose lives were in jeopardy were his own relatives and friends. Reflecting these ties, his book is laden with anecdotes and emotion, as is surely appropriate: mass tragedies need to be distilled through detail down to a scale to which one can relate. Thus, Farmer's readers meet a 25-year-old woman named Shilove, representative of a generation of young migrants who escaped rural isolation for Port-au-Prince. There, the hope of arrival met the reality of a jerry-built tenement. Caught in the quake, trapped under concrete, her leg crushed, she managed to crawl into the street before passing out. Two days later, she was found by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) worker, and her leg was bandaged up, uselessly. Then, a passing priest took her to a hospital, where she received the only medical intervention that could save her life: amputation. At least hers was not an amputation performed in the street without anesthetic. She was more fortunate than some.
Readers will wince, but such human appeals are also a spur to action. Farmer is not just personally engaged; he is a practitioner, twice over. A charismatic doctor, in 1987 he
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