It’s almost Friday here in the United States. The latest update I can find is that 200 people have died due to typhoon Sidr. These are almost certainly “early returns,” and the numbers will keep going up. Like pre-modern battles most of the fatalities won’t be directly due to the cyclone. Social disturbances, and likely outbreaks of disease (cholera) are going to take their their toll. That being said, at this point I think it is important to have a sense of perspective. A cyclone in 1991 killed 138,000 people and left 10 million homeless (I heard from relatives who told of how they had to set up shelters on their roofs and boil water for months). The 1970 cyclone was even worse, some estimates say that 500,000 people were killed (though a more usual number is around 300,000). In non-cyclone related natural disasters, a 1974 famine resulted in 26,000 deaths. The Bengal famine of 1943 left 1.5-3 million dead in its wake. Though a 1770 famine wiped out 1/3 of the region’s population.
I repeat this litany to offer optimistic note: things are getting better! Bangladesh is a depressing kleptocracy, but it muddles along, and the arrow of progress is in a positive direction. There was a definite improvement in public facilities & transportation networks between 1990 and 2004, the two times I’ve been back. A proliferation of NGOs means that some of my cousins are now opting to stay home instead of looking for jobs with multinational corporations abroad or relocating for decades to the Persian Gulf. And, it is a good thing when my uncle complains that he had to drive 100 miles out into the country to find an appropriate servant for his family (most of the socioeconomic stratum which would have satisfied this niche is now being absorbed by the textile industry).