I should be having a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment right now. Exactly one week before the earthquake struck Nepal, I was in Kathmandu. Exactly two weeks before, I was at Everest base camp, standing next to my team mate Dan Fredinburg, the Google executive who was tragically swept to his death in the avalanche that followed.
And I am. But not in the way you might expect. Because during my trip to Nepal to write for the Observer about last year’s avalanche on Everest, which killed 16 Sherpas, I couldn’t fail to notice the grinding poverty all around. It doesn’t look like poverty as we think of it. It has some of the most gorgeous and mesmerising landscapes on Earth. Its villages, many of which are miles from any road, look like they’ve been painted by a 19th century Romantic artist whose vision was blurred by the tears in his eyes at the sheer loveliness of the scene.
But it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its education and healthcare are atrocious. The life chances of its people are abysmal. The only way to earn money for a vast number of Nepalese men is to go and fall off a crane in Qatar: three body bags a day arrive at Kathmandu airport from construction sites abroad.
And it’s just got so much worse. The country is in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis in living memory. And what have we done? David Cameron has announced that Britain will be sending a team of eight people to help. The government has said we will give £5m in disaster relief. Eight people. Five million pounds – the princely sum of 12p from each of us. And here are some more numbers: 200, the years we have siphoned off their population to fight our wars for us; 43,000, the Gurkhas killed during two world wars; 141, the places ahead we are of Nepal in a list of the world’s richest countries; five, where we are in a list of its trading partners.
I don’t feel lucky to have missed the earthquake in Kathmandu or the avalanche at base camp. To have avoided the broken limbs my other team mates suffered, or to have been buried under the cascading rubble of the heartbreakingly beautiful, now destroyed, Durbar Square, where last Saturday I bought scarves as presents for my friends. I took my chances. I didn’t have to be there. Instead I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been born in a country with a functioning economy and the kind of life chances denied to 99.9% of the population of Nepal.
I received a world-class education for free, I’m able to travel and visit other countries, and if I’d been caught in an avalanche up at base camp, or stubbed my toe, I had insurance to spring me a helicopter to the best western-style hospital around. My livelihood, unlike the Nepalese people I was with, hasn’t just suffered a catastrophic blow by the inevitable collapse of tourism (the Foreign Office has warned against all but essential travel to the country). And the doctor I saw for the chest infection I carried home didn’t cost me a penny.
Inequality is the phenomenon that some of us have woken up to in the last couple of years, an injustice that has spawned self-righteous speeches from politicians of all stripes and outpourings from our greatest liberal commentators. It’s only now that we have seen a cohort of people – bankers, property speculators, robber barons – become so vastly wealthier than us, who have stockpiled so many of the world’s resources for their personal enrichment, that we’ve suddenly realised how cripplingly unfair this is. And yet we’ve completely failed to acknowledge or even realise that to the rest of the world, that is how we, all of us, appear.
We rail against the 1% and yet we are the 1%. A World Bank economist, Branko Milanovic, calculated in 2012 that to be a member of the global 1%, you need to earn $34,000 a year – or £22,000. The average British income is £25,000.
This weekend I read that the Duke of Westminster is the highest British-born individual on this year’s Sunday Times Rich List. But then I realised that I have far more in common with him than I do with most of the world’s population. We’ve both inherited our great good fortune through no skills or talents of our own. And I direct this at myself as much as anyone. Because almost the only time I put my hand in my pocket to donate money to the likes of Unicef and the Red Cross is for the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that even I can’t ignore.
Nepal earthquake: how to donate
I am probably stingier, relatively speaking, than the average Russian oligarch, a breed I’ve written any number of snarky articles about. There’s a terrible sense of helplessness that accompanies any natural disaster and this one, in particular for me, is exacerbated by the fact I can’t compute that Dan is dead. But he took his chances, voluntarily engaging in a dangerous adventure sport, unlike every single Nepalese I met who just had the great misfortune to have been born in a country that’s a financial basket case.
The anger and shame I feel is directed not just at the British government for its pathetic miserliness. Or even myself. It’s born out of a greater despair at a political landscape that considers poor, desperate foreigners undeserving of our sympathy or of any sense of responsibility to help them.
Katie Hopkins calling drowned migrants “cockroaches” is a symptom of a rhetoric that has come to dominate every side of the political debate. She is describing how we, as a country, as a society, are acting. Collectively we are to the rest of the world what Roman Abramovich is to us.