Cyclone hits Myanmar. Earthquake rocks China. In each case, thousands of lives have been snuffed out by nature’s wrath. Given the combination of global warming and extreme poverty, we’re likely to see more extreme natural and human calamities. Here in the United States, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in almost 2,000 deaths, and hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced.

When a disaster strikes the natural reaction of people is to want to help. This is a good and important thing. But natural disasters don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur in the context of human-made political and economic problems and inequalities.

In Myanmar, the military dictatorship failed its people before, during and after the storm. It has refused many offers of aid. Yet, the hypocrisy of George and Laura Bush chastising the junta for failing to respond is stunning. The world vividly recalls Bush’s callous failure to respond to Katrina. His belligerent foreign policies have increased tensions and fueled distrust of the U.S. His economic policies have widened the wealth gap in the U.S. and increased global poverty.

China responded markedly differently than Myanmar, with the Communist government immediately mobilizing, in a transparent way, massive resources to the affected areas.

What can the world do when disaster strikes? Many good organizations raise funds for humanitarian aid, including unions, women’s organizations and health care groups, and we can donate to such efforts. There are also countries that always go above and beyond – Cuba, for example, offered doctors and other aid for the Katrina victims (Bush rejected Cuba’s offer) and sends trained personnel and other resources to numerous countries in time of need.

Americans want to help when disaster strikes. One way is by making donations for relief aid. Beyond that, working to change U.S. policies to favor human needs and our planet, not global capital, is necessary to help prevent catastrophe when possible and to save and rebuild lives wherever disaster hits.