A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple. Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images
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Nepal has become a country that can't see the future – this quake gives us a chance to change that

I look at my house, damaged when a neighbour’s house collapsed on to it, and I wonder: will any of this be rebuilt?

Four days after a huge 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, the ordeal is far from over. There have been close to 100 aftershocks. The death toll, at the time of writing, has risen above 5,000. As news arrives of even greater destruction outside Kathmandu, that figure is expected to rise. People are buried beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings, waiting to be rescued. Many thousands have been stranded outside, battling cold and rain, without food, water or medicine.

I wish I could say this tragedy could not have been predicted – that it was something we could not have prepared for. Yet for decades experts have been warning that a major earthquake could devastate Nepal. The country sits in a zone of high seismic activity. Catastrophic earthquakes occur here every 70 to 80 years; the last one was in 1934.

Western media coverage of the quake has focused on how, as a poor country, Nepal lacks the capacity for disaster preparation and relief. While this is undoubtedly true, the reality is that political apathy and criminal unaccountability, cemented by years of political transition, have made a disaster-prone country even more vulnerable. For years, successive governments have largely ignored the need to enforce and institute building codes, promote earthquake safety and plan for disaster relief. This lack of planning has only become more apparent as the government has struggled to co-ordinate relief assistance and mobilise resources after the earthquake. Two rescue teams, one from New Zealand and the other from Finland, were sent home by a government that had no idea how to use them.

Nepali people have long known that they cannot rely on the state. Even when the government has been slow to respond, they have remained calm. At least so far, there has been no anger or unrest as has been widely claimed. But that could easily change as conditions deteriorate.

I look at the ruined cityscape of Kathmandu, the monuments and scenes of my childhood which now survive only in my memory, the archaeological treasures handed down across the centuries and destroyed in a minute. The weight of loss is immense. I look at my house, damaged when a neighbour’s house collapsed on to it, and I wonder: will any of this be rebuilt?

One can’t help but be angry. While our political parties chase an elusive consensus on a new constitution, seeking to resolve ideological differences that look increasingly detached from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, progress on simple matters such as economy and governance has taken a backseat. Local elections have not taken place in Nepal for 18 years – first due to insecurity caused by the decade-long civil war and later as a result of the political parties’ desire to avoid going to the polls. Not having locally elected bodies has made current relief efforts both slow and ineffective.

Political organisations, social institutions and state organs have been rendered defunct by years of corruption and intransigence. Today, it is only the army and the security forces that are maintaining any kind of governance.

Our immediate focus should be on rescue and relief. This is where a lot of humanitarian assistance has been directed successfully. Soon, however, we will need to start thinking about rebuilding and beginning afresh. This will mean nothing less than a complete political and economic overhaul. But we have become a country that cannot see beyond the next few years (or electoral terms).

A disaster such as this one presents an opportunity to reorient our national priorities. For a country that has had problems forging political consensus, perhaps the need to rebuild and prevent future disasters could be a uniting factor – leading us to co-operate and form the basis of a social contract. Over the coming years, sustainable development and disaster preparation should guide our politics. Public participation, government accountability and responsive governance can all flow from there.

People have been saying that one of the reasons we were so ill-prepared for the disaster was our fatalism. But what causes fatalism? It is the belief that individual actions cannot change anything. It is because people lack access to those who govern. This is the heart of our problem. Poverty and heightened vulnerability are only one aspect. This is what we need to work to change during the difficult days ahead.

The people of Nepal have overcome many upheavals in their history and they will rise from this, too. But perhaps it is time we stopped taking pride in being survivors and worked to build our resilience, collectively, to every kind of disaster and adversity. 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.