Thursday, 30th December, 2004

The One Face of Grief

In most natural disasters, we glimpse the suffering of one region, one people, often a single city with victims of a single nationality. But in the aftermath of last Sunday's earthquake and tsunamis, we are witnessing something that hasn't been seen since the end of World War II: a nearly global catalog of woe. The islands and coastlines of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea are home to an astonishing index of human diversity, made still more diverse by the tourists gathering for the holiday season. Before Sunday, it would have been hard to imagine a natural disaster that affected both aboriginal Andaman Islanders and northern Europeans. Now we know what it looks like.

Here, so far from the devastation, we naturally focus on the death count, now reported to be more than 80,000, and it will certainly keep rising. The victims include people of every age, but especially children. They include Indonesians, Thais, Indians, Sri Lankans, Burmese, Somalis, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, British, Americans and many others. Out of all that diversity, the tsunamis created a single, simple division, between the living and the dead.

At first, the concern of the living was naturally for the dead. But to avert a far worse disaster, the living must now look after themselves with all the aid the rest of the world can provide. The World Health Organization has stated that the greatest risk of disease doesn't come from the decaying of the numerous corpses. It comes from the way the survivors are now forced to live - without fresh water, without adequate sanitation and, in many places, without shelter or enough food.

It is not merely a symbol that the civil war going on in western Sumatra has been suspended in the wake of the disaster. It is a sober setting-aside of differences for a more important, more immediate cause. This relief effort is going to test all of us, all around the world. Right now, the problem is getting supplies into the region and figuring out where they are needed most, a task made all the harder by the geographical scope of the devastation and the fact that so many places are still out of contact.

There is only one face of grief - no matter how many languages and skin colors there are among the survivors - and there should be only a single face of determined, compassionate outreach, worn by the rest of us wherever we live.

NYT Editorial, 30 Dec 2004

The One Face of Grief
logged by alf at 17:32, Thursday, 30th December, 2004