Disaster Relief: Capitalism and Socialism

In human society, there is no such thing as a purely “natural” disaster. While storms, flooding, landslides and other emergencies are in some sense “acts of nature,” we cannot fully separate the natural event itself from the social context in which it occurs. In the United States, the capitalist system worsens and profits off of disasters, whereas in socialist China, a robust response system based on human need lessens the impact of disasters. This can be seen clearly by comparing relief efforts in the U.S. and China, as well as other socialist countries.

Hurricane Harvey is currently devastating hundreds of thousands of Texas residents. Harvey has destroyed homes, displaced thousands, and as of this writing, at least 31 people have died. The storm has also caused numerous chemical and oil spills from plants located close to low-income communities of color.

Harvey has occurred in the context of increased extreme weather, due in large part to corporate-fueled climate change. Corporations, along with the U.S. government and law enforcement, are also to blame for the actual impact of the storm on society. There have been widespread reports of price gouging as businesses seek to turn an ever-larger profit off the suffering of thousands of working class people. Local police are preventing those in need from “looting” water, which is being sold by some stores for as high as $99 per case; armed “Proud Boy” fascists are also chasing down ‘looters’. Hawkish corporations are already eyeing higher profit margins as they plan rebuilding efforts down the road.

The situation is even more dire for undocumented Texas residents. Border Patrol checkpoints are staying open, forcing undocumented migrants to choose between imprisonment/deportation and weathering a massive flood.

The city of Houston could have taken steps to mitigate floods before Harvey. However, Congress chose austerity by voting down a bill that would have allocated necessary funds to widen bayous and relocate bridges, which could have hindered massive flooding.

The situation closely mirrors Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated millions of residents of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Over 20,000 sought refuge in the Superdome, where lack of air conditioning, sanitation, and sufficient food and water created an unlivable situation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief effort was pitiful, to say the least:

Federal recovery efforts were marked by racism — for example, FEMA provided trailers to 63 percent of the residents of St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white area leveled by the flood, but only to 13 percent of the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward.

The recovery effort was also hamstrung by a convoluted system of tiered power that resulted in Federal, state, and local governments clumsily dodging responsibilities while working at cross purposes.

FEMA was lambasted as incompetent and bloated in a report from the Department of Homeland Security, and by voices outside the government, particularly for its failure to provide housing to tens of thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed, sometimes distributing hard-to-use hotel vouchers with short life spans instead.

Flood victims were criminalized as “looters” for taking necessary steps for basic survival as the George W. Bush administration dragged their feet in relief efforts. Private security group Blackwater, along with the National Guard, deployed heavily armed mercenaries, enforcing martial law on the majority-Black working population of New Orleans. On top of that, white supremacist vigilantes took the opportunity to shoot Black people with impunity.

Black residents felt especially targeted by the horrifically racist response to the hurricane:

“Angry evacuees described being trapped in temporary shelters where one New Orleans resident said she was ‘one sunrise from being consumed by maggots and flies.’ Another woman said military troops focused machine gun laser targets on her granddaughter’s forehead. Others said their families were called racial epithets by police.”

“No one is going to tell me it wasn’t a race issue. Yes, it was an issue of race. Because of one thing: when the city had pretty much been evacuated, the people that were left there mostly was black,” said New Orleans evacuee Patricia Thompson.

Katrina’s destruction, exacerbated by the U.S. government and major corporations, left an estimated 1,800 people dead and over a million displaced. Majority-Black neighborhoods were largely neglected in recovery efforts, and nearly a third of Black residents never returned to New Orleans.

The criminal response did not end there. Government officials, real estate moguls, and corporate goons used the storm to opportunistically impose harsh austerity on the people of New Orleans through school privatizations, job cuts, and land grabs. These actions destroyed working class Black communities, exacerbating gentrification and deepening already acute poverty levels.

In the capitalist U.S., natural disasters that devastate communities are used by the ruling class as a chance to fill their pockets at the expense of poor and working people. Furthermore, lack of regulations allow real estate and construction industries to neglect safety standards, putting poor residents especially at risk of natural disaster damage. A 2004 study found that “the poor in the United States are more vulnerable to natural disasters due to such factors as place and type of residence, building construction, and social exclusion.”

The U.S. government also relies heavily on other sources for disaster relief. While FEMA does participate in relief efforts, much of this work is left to NGOs and charities such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Samaritan’s Purse.

However, the money that these organizations raise rarely benefits victims. For example, the Red Cross refused to disclose how they spent money raised for Hurricane Sandy relief. It was later found that their relief efforts were little more than a PR move, hardly providing any material aid to those in need:

According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.

This is consistent with the Red Cross’s other sham “relief” efforts. The Red Cross raised half a billion dollars for relief after a 2010 hurricane in Haiti. With this money, just six homes were actually built, despite claims from the Red Cross that homes were built for over 130,000 Haitians.

Given lackluster responses by the U.S. government and NGOs alike, working class people have organized their own relief efforts, both during Katrina and Harvey. In Houston, antifascists are on the ground providing first aid, search and rescue, and shelter.

While a hurricane itself is an act of nature to an extent (although exacerbated by the climate crisis), the human suffering is majorly a product of the parasitic U.S. capitalist system and the complicit U.S. government. As long as profit remains the motive force of the U.S. economic system, disasters will be used to further oppress and subjugate the most vulnerable communities.

The Chinese alternative

China is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. In 2015 alone, China was hit with “17 storms, 13 floods and landslides, 5 earthquakes and one drought.” In light of this ongoing problem, the government developed a natural disaster response system:

The Ministry of Civil Affairs National Disaster Reduction Center was established and the rescue plan was further improved (31 provincial natural disaster rescue contingency plans were developed, 310 cities and 2347 counties have developed disaster relief contingency plans, and the national and the disaster relief emergency response system was initially established). In short, the Chinese government has strengthened the development of disaster management, and established a national management system with Chinese characteristics related to disaster prevention and reduction. Thus, in China, communities might be more resilient to major natural disasters, such as floods, than developed countries due to experience with past major disasters and a strong social, structural, and coping capacity.

This effort showed immediate improvement in preventing civilian casualties. In 2005, an estimated 15.7 million people were evacuated in response efforts, and the total death count from disasters was lower than that of 2001.

China’s disaster response plans prompt widespread participation at the provincial, county, and city level, encouraging citizens and officials alike to support relief efforts. This strategy has proven highly effective:

In 2004, severe floods occurred in some medium and small rivers and Typhoon Rananim hit east China’s Zhejiang Province, causing landslides, falling rocks and flash floods in certain townships. Apart from strengthening disaster early-warning and forecast efforts, the Central Government earmarked 4 billion yuan (US$483.68 million) for disaster relief in these areas, collected donations of 4.89 million yuan (US$591,294), allocated 310,000 tents, evacuated and settled down 6.11 million victims in disaster-stricken areas, and helped these victims to rebuild 1.4 million destroyed houses, guaranteeing the basic needs of victims in terms of clothing, food, shelter, clean water and medical care. To supplement the government support, people from all walks of life are encouraged to donate and help the disaster-hit areas. Victims were encouraged to brace themselves for the relief work, neighboring cities were asked to help each other to pull through disasters, and tax breaks were granted. All these measures helped assist the basic needs of victims and guarantee social stability in disaster-stricken areas. [emphasis mine]

The Chinese government evacuated and relocated 6.11 million victims and rebuilt 1.4 million homes. Imagine where New Orleans would be today if it received such support from the U.S. government.

The Chinese state focuses not just on relief, but also prevention: as a part of initiatives to fight poverty and urbanize the country, the Chinese government has helped millions of citizens relocate away from disaster-prone areas before emergency strikes.

The Chinese government continues to improve its disaster relief system. In 2016, the State Council issued a guideline on a comprehensive natural disaster prevention and alleviation plan, including the establishment of a relief goods storage system and improved policy and regulations. This past May, it was announced that the disaster system “will be further enhanced through raising subsidies for victims and speeding up reconstruction of damaged residential buildings.” In August, the state allocated another 1 billion yuan (~ $150 million USD) to natural disaster relief in response to severe droughts and flooding.

China’s disaster relief efforts extend internationally:

In recent years, based on its experience in disaster risk issues, China has been increasingly contributing to  international humanitarian aid and disaster relief. In 2015, China was one of the first countries in Nepal to provide international aid after the earthquake. The disaster rescue in Nepal is the largest overseas rescue action from China in recent years, improving China’s international reputation and also reinforcing its vision with the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Furthermore, during the Ecuador Earthquake this year, there were six Chinese social organizations that directly contributed to the disaster relief efforts.

China also sent military, police, and civilian rescue teams to Iran in 2003, Indonesia in 2004, and Haiti in 2010, treating thousands of patients and rescuing dozens of people.

There is still much to be done for China to keep its people safe from floods, landslides, and other natural disasters. However, the Chinese government has displayed commitment to building better solutions, unlike the U.S. The two countries are compared in a Global Times op-ed:

The problem is that people’s livelihoods are not placed as a priority in the US system. The rulers in the US care most about how to satisfy public opinion and how to seek an advantageous position in the next elections. But this has nothing to do with people’s livelihoods and the authorities need not shoulder responsibility for the long-term interests of the public…

If there is a hurricane or flood in China, officials at both the local level and the central level are required to participate in on-site rescue relief and the whole of the nation is united. China’s resources and technical abilities are not as good as the US, but the importance China attaches to disasters makes up for these shortcomings, so China can perform better than the US in rescue relief sometimes.

Socialism is the answer

The advantage China has over the U.S. is not resources or funds, but rather its socialist system. While the U.S. government serves the interests of the rich exploiters, the Chinese government exists to protect workers. The planned economy in China allows the state to allocate resources to areas that serve the people directly and benefit the welfare of the whole society, such as disaster planning, education, and relief.

Other socialist countries have had similar success in disaster prevention and relief. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), 10,000 new homes were recently constructed for flood victims. This is a stark contrast to the U.S. government’s pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom received no assistance. In the United States, empty homes outnumber the homeless population by 6 to 1. In the DPRK, housing is viewed as a fundamental right, along with healthcare, education, and a job.

Socialist Cuba has a world-renowned hurricane response system. Response is thoroughly planned, and citizens are rigorously educated in disaster preparation:

People in schools, universities and workplaces are continuously informed and trained to cope with natural hazards.  From their early age, all Cubans are taught how to behave as hurricanes approach the island.  They also have, every year, a two-day training session in risk reduction for hurricanes, complete with simulation exercises and concrete preparation actions.  This facilitates the mobilization of their communities at the local level when a hurricane hits Cuba…

All institutions are mobilized 48 hours before the hurricane is foreseen to hit the island, to implement the emergency plan, and measures such as massive evacuation are taken.  Every individual has a role to play at the community level.  Local authorities know who needs special care and how to assist the most vulnerable.  Schools and hospitals are converted into shelters and transport is immediately organized.

According to the Center for International Policy, “a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba” despite the U.S.-imposed blockade and Cuba’s subsequent relative lack of resources.

Not only does Cuba excel in prevention, but also in recovery. Journalist Gail Reed said that, “unlike the people of Texas and Louisiana affected by tropical storm Harvey, all of whom must apply for federal aid, Cubans, despite the country’s vastly inferior economic resources, do not feel as though they will be abandoned ‘no matter what,’ nor subjected to market-driven price gouging of vital supplies as witnessed in Texas today.”

Cuba also notably attempted to send “some 1,600 medics, field hospitals and 83 tons of medical supplies” to aid relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This assistance was swiftly denied by the U.S. government due to lack of bilateral relations and political bias against the socialist Cuban government. White House spokesman Scott McClellan’s response to the aid offer? “When it comes to Cuba, we have one message for Fidel Castro: He needs to offer the people of Cuba their freedom.”

Apparently in this context, “freedom” means freedom to be displaced, deported, or thrown further into acute poverty.

Similarly to Cuba’s Katrina effort, the Bolivarian government of Venezuela is set to donate $5 million USD to Harvey relief efforts. This is an impressive display of international solidarity, especially given the recent sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Venezuela.

The trend is clear: socialism serves the people, and capitalism does not. While capitalism and white supremacy continue to create and exacerbate destruction brought on by “natural” disasters in the United States, socialist China and other countries show us that a better world is indeed possible. In order to build this new world, it is imperative to replace capitalism with socialism, a system based on people’s needs rather than profits.

Ava Lipatti is a Marxist, anti-imperialist, feminist activist and writer Her blog can be found at lonelyhourreflections.wordpress.com Read other articles by Ava, or visit Ava's website.