An Entirely Avoidable Great Tragedy

I am outraged. Yes, I not so much saddened as I am outraged.

It is a great tragedy. So many lives needlessly wasted. So many children dead, so many more with little hope of a decent human existence. Millions homeless without proper water, food, healthcare and education. Entirely preventable because we have the technology and the resources to avoid all this suffering and death. In the end it comes down to human frailty–greed, short-sightedness, ignorance, the lust for power.

And then there was an incident on Sunday when an earthquake unleashed a tsunami in the Indian Ocean and killed about 50 thousand, give or take 10 thousand. It is getting a lot of press and appeals for help on the internet are beginning to rival the pedelers of Viagra in the volume of email and the urgency of their appeal.

Yesterday 55,000 children died premature deaths, a few hundred million people didn’t have adequate housing, hundreds of millions were hungry. About half of all children in South Asia are malnourished. Poverty, a clear cause of malnourishment, is a also a consequence. It is a Silent Emergency.

We are a strange lot. We get on with our lives as if nothing is the matter with the world, when 10 million children die needlessly every year.

Then a stupid large wave hits and a few thousand die and we run around like headless chickens. Some sobering statistics:

Every year, over 10 million children under the age of five die from readily preventable and treatable illnesses such as diarrhoeal dehydration, acute respiratory infection, measles, and malaria. In half of the cases, illness is complicated by malnutrition. [Source]

Where is the breathless reaction to that? The advanced industrialized economies (the so-called “developed nations”) spend hundreds of billions of dollars bombing and killing hundreds of thousands–and spending trillions of dollars in arming themselves to the teeth–and no one bats an eyelid. It is a man-made calamity of global proportions. Then one Sunday morning, a natural event wipes out a few thousand people–almost a rounding-off error to the numbers involved in the man-made calamity and everyone and his brother wakes up and runs around as if the sky is falling.

Two hundred billion dollars or so to bomb some stupid country; and an awesomely magnanimous gesture of promising $0.015 billion in aid for the natural disaster from the US. The sheer incongruity of the figures stuns one catatonic.

Why? Bounded rationality? Or as I see it, unbounded stupidity. Fifty-thousand dying each and every day is not news. Being essentially innumerates, we do not find statistics very useful. What we need is pictures of great devastation for entertainment and distraction. The pictures of tsunami-ravaged coastlines compel our attention unlike the numbers we read in the annual reports of global institutions such as the World Bank.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled entertainment interspersed with random events of destruction and death.

9 thoughts on “An Entirely Avoidable Great Tragedy

  1. Aditi Thursday December 30, 2004 / 2:19 pm

    Someone said once, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. He forgot to add that a zillion deaths in India are not even that. They are records to be lost in the heaps of file-trash to be kept safely in government offices.
    Issues such as ‘poverty’, ‘quality of life’, ‘health’ have been thrashed about in public so many times by the politicians in power that one is forced to believe that they are insurmountable. Just like they want to wash their hands off the disaster down south by calling it a “natural calamity”. No one acknowledges that it could have been avoided, something has to be done now that it has happened or that one should plan for the future. Too bad it happened, they say, but now lets get on with our little lives. They were quarrelling in Delhi over whether it should be called a “calamity” or a “severe calamity”. This is their concern. And this is how they lead us.


  2. Yoga Bear Thursday December 30, 2004 / 3:41 pm

    Yep, it does seem like Everybody loves a good Tsunami. Perhaps somebody should write about that and make his/her millions.


  3. Raj Thursday December 30, 2004 / 5:15 pm

    Today afternoon Shivraj Patil (Home Minister) and Kapil Sibal (Min of Science?) were fighting on the today’ central govt alert to evacuate parts of Coastal India.

    Chaos and Panic in Cuddalore, Andamans and even Chennai.

    This is turning out to be the same story repeated ad nauseum only the players change, the nature of the calamity changes and the location changes….while the poor dead become only statistics – never to remembered, never to be mounred….

    I am also amazed at the number of NGOs and Aid agencies rushing asking for money and relief…being partially interested in this area, i am amazed to see that i have never even heard of some of the names….maybe feeding on the gullibility of the public.


  4. yum yum Friday December 31, 2004 / 6:50 am

    Well said, Mr Dey! Couldn’t agree more!


  5. Jack Stack Friday December 31, 2004 / 8:16 am

    Yes, tragedy abounds. Atanu, I agree that the powers that be have severe (calamatous) issues with prioritization.

    You are quick to point out issues (again) with the US. Yep, Iraq, but at the same time, we’ve done quite a bit for literally every nation since we became a nation. We can debate the merits of capitalism, democracy, etc or we can understand that India is still a young country that has needs – similar to many other countries.

    Shocked, yes. Outraged, yes. Hopeful that every day, we as a world community improve every time we reflect.

    Best Wishes in the New Year!


  6. charu Friday December 31, 2004 / 10:48 am

    excellent post, Atanu… nothing to beat a disater of this magnitude for sheer entertainment value (if you have been reading Bombay Times, you will see that celebrities whi were anywhere near the areas affected have already been interviewed and photographed)…
    and the saddest part is when these deaths – both in the current disaster and in the normal course of life in this part of the world – become just numbers and statistics… which are much more easy to ignore than individual stories of suffering and tragedy…


  7. Santosh Kumar Friday December 31, 2004 / 11:17 am


    Your are painfully clear at times. Forget rural or third world destinations of the third world. People within 200 Km from Mumbai die of malnutrition. My poem Death is Photogenic reflects upon the same mentality. But then , in India we are all ‘satsang’ people , we are all ‘verbally’ very social. People need someone to follow and take the lead then they will join , crowd mentality. We should think on the lines of providing Physical and Practical Social Training in school a DIY approach to Social Work. India has absolute 0% social investment. I am thinking about a online initiative to help NGOs and NGOs to help and assist each other. My earlier experience was not so encouraging but since India has become more net aware I am slightly optimistics. Lets see.



  8. Taran Sunday January 2, 2005 / 10:03 am

    In a way, it was unavoidable. If it were avoidable, then it would have been avoided. It has happened; it was unavoidable.

    The right thing to do is to find out why it was unavoidable and fix it. If – and I believe you are right – mankind can do something better, then perhaps we should fix it.


  9. concentriccircle Wednesday June 29, 2005 / 7:39 pm

    Atanu, as always you make very poignant points. It amazes me how we spend our time being totally oblivious of the death and disease around us. As i always ask, if man were left to his free will, would he help another man in distress? I have a related post on my blog…


Comments are closed.