The 2015 Nepal earthquake, on April 25, has now taken more than 8,000 human lives and countless other animal lives. The quake was so powerful it triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing and injuring at least 50 climbers.
The earthquake’s epicenter was in the Gorkha district, named after the legendary Gorkha soldiers and Sanskrit Scripture honoring the protection of cows.
As a public health physician who has witnessed the depths of vulnerability in places like Nepal, I have been following the emergency relief response closely. I’ve been heartened by the outpouring of concern, compassion, and support for humans and animals alike – though there is still so much to be done.
The tragedy in Nepal underscores the shared vulnerability of humans and animals in natural disasters, an issue that has received more international attention since Hurricane Katrina.
Natural disasters like the Nepal earthquake expose some of our deepest vulnerabilities. We are all vulnerable beings. We fear. We feel pain. We break. We become diseased and disordered. We suffer. We succumb. We die.
None of us are exempt. We live in a vulnerable world. Life leaves scars. But we are also strong. Our visible and invisible wounds heal, despite our vulnerabilities. And sometimes our greatest strengths, and our capacity to heal, emerge from our deepest vulnerabilities.
But what makes us vulnerable? And why are some more vulnerable than others? What makes us – including nonhuman animals – vulnerable beings?
These are questions that are only recently being tackled with the level of seriousness they deserve.
Generally, there are two main sources of vulnerability:
1) Our innate vulnerability: From the Latin word vulnerābilis, vulnerability reflects our susceptibility to physical or emotional wounds. One of its earliest uses was to describe the Greek hero Achilles’ heel. Legend has it that at Achilles’ birth, his mother Thetis immersed him in the Hades’ river Styx in order to make him invulnerable. In doing so, she held him by one heel, which was never touched by the water. Later, as a great warrior in the Trojan War, Achilles was mortally wounded when a poisonous arrow was shot into his heel. The legend of Achilles shows how even the strongest among us are vulnerable.
Like humans, animals are vulnerable to a spectrum of physical and psychological harms. The health of humans and animals is linked by our common needs, including simple physical requirements, safety and security, love, respect, and opportunities to live up to our full potential. Failure to meet these needs can leave visible and invisible wounds – to our flesh and to our minds.
2) Outer sources of vulnerability: Vulnerability is heightened by personal, social, political, economic, and environmental situations. Pathogenic sources of vulnerability result from prejudice, abuse, and sociopolitical situations characterized by oppression, domination, injustice, and violence.
For many beings, these vulnerabilities last a lifetime.
Animals are particularly vulnerable. They have no political power. They cannot advocate for themselves. Legally, they are property. They can be bought and sold. Animals are easily trapped, restrained, and transported by physical force. In captivity, animals are totally dependent upon humans.
Today, some of the most desperate animals in Nepal are cows and goats, who have been tied up, without adequate shelter, suffering from thirst and hunger.
Fortunately, humans and animals also share a capacity for tremendous resilience – but only if sources of vulnerability are removed or addressed with the sincerity they deserve.
The catastrophe in Nepal is not a question of “us or them.” As one rescuer said: “Compassion doesn’t care if you have two legs or four.” When we learn to embrace our own vulnerabilities and respect the vulnerabilities of others, we are often kinder, more compassionate, and stronger.
For those of us who aren’t in Nepal, we are still left with the question: What can we do in our everyday lives to reduce vulnerability and lift the burden of suffering – particularly for the most vulnerable members of society, human and animal alike?