Perhaps the one good thing about the tsunami is that no one is spending any time figuring out who to blame for the weather. More often than not, we're so eager to argue politics over still warm piles of bodies that we can't just agree to come together and mourn. The tsunami has crashed across political boundaries almost as easily as national ones.
But it hasn't washed out all distinctions. Of all the tsunami coverage in the last couple of weeks, one small bit of press sticks in my mind. Above the fold of 2005's first Globe and Mail was a photo that pointed, amidst the disaster that's become a macrocosm for all our personal insecurities, to an understated microcosm of the state of the world.
Imagine two tourists - one pasty, one en route to a sunburn - reclining on a beach 10 feet from a scene of storm-racked chaos in Phuket, Thailand. The dark-skinned locals behind them are picking through the detritus while one tourist dozes peacefully under a parasol. The other watches the work with the body language of someone flipping TV channels. At this particular point in time, the death toll in Phuket alone is 3,000.
A Dutch tourist, quoted in an AP story, explained her decision to bravely sally forth and lounge mere days after the disaster. "I... think it's very important, like people who have been in a motorcycle accident to ride again to overcome (their fear)." Poor darling, she's afraid of the beach. Chances are, many workers in tourist traps in the region had to swallow their dismay and act thankful for bobble-headed troopers like her. They're the ones with the money, after all. And you can be sure their hotels are some of the sturdier structures around.
The suffering in Southeast Asia has been presented to us as self-contained spectacles of singular human drama, in images out of joint with time. For tourists, the sprawling misfortune will make for a good yarn back home. For many citizens of the stricken countries, it's an ongoing tragic narrative.
Sri Lanka has lost nearly half its forests in the last 80 years, especially its coastal mangroves. Why am I telling you this? Mangroves are known for reducing flood and storm damage, partly by reducing soil erosion. Much of this denuding has occurred in response to the foreign hunger for exported prawns and packaged coastal vistas.
In the 1980s, as one of many so-called beneficiaries of loans from the International Monetary Fund, Sri Lanka began a shift away from agriculture exports to manufacturing, as per the IMF rules that inevitably accompany loans. This may have meant a slight relief for the trees, but not for the people. Poverty is generally the result of a sudden exodus to the cities, as rural workers flee their underfunded farms or war, following government subsidies into the sweatshops of transnational corporations' export processing zones.
And the truth is, you're less likely to survive a natural disaster if you're poor. Medical aid workers in Sri Lanka are concerned about an epidemic of measles, and news anchors make it seem like that's just what happens after tsunamis. But measles, a disease that can barely find work in our part of the world, was at epidemic levels well before the storm.
Thankfully, the type of aid now pouring (or drizzling, in the case of some governments, like that of the U.S. or Saudi Arabia) into the Indian Ocean (not literally, we hope) comes with no strings attached, unlike IMF bailouts. But there are few ways to track that aid once it leaves your wallet, a fact that concerns activists advocating for those officially forgotten by many governments - the peasants, landless poor and indigenous peoples.
In Aceh, where tens of thousands have been lost to the storm, NGOs seek to remind us that tens of thousands of Acehnese have also been killed by the occupying Indonesian military, which is now coordinating relief efforts. Activists fear the military will avail itself of the opportunity for harassment and surveillance of dissidents returning to find their families, and perhaps further entrench itself without much international scrutiny.
They also fear that the U.S., historically sympathetic to the occupation and accused of supporting the dictatorship on the sly, may now have an excuse to restore official funding to Indonesia.
Right now, your money is needed. In the months and years to come, your scrutiny will be just as important. So wrench open your wallet by all means, but try to stretch your attention span as well. The tragedy will continue, with or without a CNN logo in the corner.
WE SHARE THE PLANET
So give generously. The Canadian government will match donations to:
Canadian Red Cross www.redcross.ca, 1-800-418-1111
CARE Canada www.care.ca, 1-800-267-5232
Doctors Without Borders www.msf.ca, 1-800-982-7903
Oxfam Canada www.oxfam.ca, 1-800-GO-OXFAM (1-800-466-9326)
Save the Children Canada www.savethechildren.ca, 1-800-668-5036
UNICEF Canada www.unicef.ca, 1-877-955-3111