Britain had barely risen from its post-Christmas slumber when news of the Haitian earthquake thundered into the headlines.
“Thousands feared dead as huge earthquake destroys Haiti”, screamed The Times newspaper. “Earthquake devastation unimaginable”, shrieked The Guardian. “Island of tragedy”, squealed The Sun.
And suddenly, after years of scant reporting on the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, the people of Britain woke up to Haiti’s plight as never before.
In the immediate aftermath, Haiti was everywhere. Estimates of the death toll – spiralling into tens and then hundreds of thousands – found their way on to nearly every front page and news bulletin in the country.
Countless horror stories started to flood in: of men, women and children being trapped under layers of concrete or being crushed in falling buildings.
In a matter of hours, dust-covered faces and dramatic images of the devastated presidential palace were plastered across TV screens and doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook.
It soon became clear that the earthquake had captured Britain’s attention in a way no natural disaster had done since the Asian tsunami in 2004. Despite the fact that there are very few Haitians in the UK, and that people know little about the country, many were horrified at the scale of the disaster.
Shock quickly turned to action. Gordon Brown stood before parliament in his weekly ‘Prime Ministers Questions’ address to reassure the nation that fire-fighters, emergency equipment and financial help was urgently being deployed to Port-au-Prince.
Search and rescue teams from across the UK were filmed boarding a plane at London’s Gatwick airport – their bright orange suits a dramatic contrast against the white snow which was covering much of the British countryside at the time.
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – a group of British aid agencies which coordinate responses to major catastrophes – hastily launched a UK wide appeal, asking for vital funds to pay for tents, water, food and medicine.
And a catalogue of quirky fundraising campaigns took off as people donated money at ‘Help Haiti’ dinners, movie-nights and school ‘non-uniform’ days.
Young kids got involved, too. Charlie Simpson, a seven year old from south London, cycled around his local park and then shot to fame when his efforts were rewarded with online donations from around the world of £160,000. He was even invited to meet the Prime Minister’s wife at Downing Street.
And up and down the country, the wider British public reacted with breathtaking generosity, digging deep into their pockets and raising £2 million for the DEC after just 36 hours. The total now stands at some £80 million.
Still the news rolled in, day in, day out. More dead, more injured. Horrific photos of makeshift mortuaries. Tales of bodies being piled high on street corners. Admissions by aid agencies that supplies were only “trickling” through.
And with it, a phase of soul-searching began. How could the West have let Haiti slip so deep into poverty? Why had Haiti constructed so many unsafe buildings when it lies in the middle of an earthquake zone? What could international aid really do to help a country ruined by years of corruption and weak governance? Why was the emergency response on the ground still so painfully slow?
In some camps, anger turned to hysteria. The Sun newspaper bemoaned “Haiti’s aid nightmare” and tough questions were asked of politicians, UN officials and charity workers on late night TV shows and early morning radio programmes.
Despite the inevitable cynicism surrounding the relief effort – and ongoing doubts as to whether Haiti will ever be able to achieve long-term prosperity – the UK is still delivering aid to Haiti five weeks on. When all is said and done, this a tragedy which has deeply moved Britons from all walks of life.
Yet, surely, the greatest tragedy of all is that it has taken such a devastating blow – and more than 200,000 deaths – to put Haiti firmly on the map.
Jo Barrett is Progressio’s Media Officer.