Friday, January 07, 2005


Last night both the BBC and SKY referred to the recent tsunami as the worst natural disaster in living memory. It isn't - around 250,000 Chinese died as a result of an earthquake in '76. (There were several more with bigger death tolls in the twentieth century.) It is instead, and perhaps more importantly, the first natural disaster that we remember giving such a damn about.

Not being susceptible to eathquakes, hurricanes and the like, the Brits in particular feel more involved this time. I suspect that the fact that the victims included countless Western tourists enjoying a sunny day in paradise has increased the overall sense of immediacy. (And over Christmas to boot.)

On the other side of the Atlantic last week the prevailing attitudes seemed comparatively uncompassionate. In Guatemala a report of the catastrophe was given equal billing on the local news channel in their short internacionales section with a piece about a rogue monkey on the rooftops of Barranquilla, Colombia.

At least 85% of Guatemalans of course have no concept of the holiday abroad and are hardened to the daily possibility of being massacred by Mother Nature. The last major quake there killed over 30,000. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 across Central America causing $9bn of economic damage. Less than a third of the aid promised by the World Bank and other governments ever materialised. The agriculture of northern Honduras remains devastated. (It wasn't that great to start with. )

How long will the current surge in our good intentions last? Significantly they would appear to be being driven from the bottom up on this occasion, much like the response to the famine in Ethiopia. The impact of the maremoto on the popular imagination at least equals that of 9-11 and once again Hollywood would appear to have prepped our imaginations for human tragedy on this scale. There's a good chance that the money will reach the people it's being collected for.

The Septics, somewhat typically, have combined a lukewarm compassion for the victims of the Indian Ocean disaster with a frantic concern for the possibility that they themselves might be like totally vulnerable to to something similar. The probable final death toll associated with use of shamed drug Vioxx has also been dramatically inflated in the last week, as if by way of one-upmanship.

Back in '97 I was indeed upset when Diana died in Paris, but soon found myself even more distrurbed by the fermenting mob sentiment. After the Boxing Day wave I find both the apparent lack of feeling over there and the apparent excess of it over here almost equally distasteful.

Yet there's no denying that it has been depressing my mood at the start of the year - I'm not sure how much of this can be attributed to the fact that V and I were so nearly on that plane to Thailand before Christmas and that I have since learned that the best friend of a family member was washed away at Phuket.

I've been feeling guilty that my obstinate insistence on a trip to the far east could have endangered V. It's small comfort that we are unlikely to have been anywhere near the beach at 8am in the morning. When I look at the photos of her standing on the white sands in Mexico with her back to the sea I can imagine that I see the spectre of the maremoto gushing in at 400mph behind her.

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