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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Disasters in Burma and China, and human response

The airwaves over the last two weeks have been beset by sights and sounds from the wreckage left by Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the earthquake in China. The destruction has been massive and widespread, and the suffering that this has led to has been profound. In both cases, the scale of the disaster has made rescue efforts incredibly difficult, complex and involved. In Burma, the political situation and the closed nature of the government have made relief efforts much harder, and have transformed a natural disaster into a human tragedy.

Last weekend, the Young(ish) Adults group from St. Mark's, Newnham, collected money to help with relief efforts in Burma. (We gave through dec.org.uk; I discovered them through an appeal on BBC Radio 4.) In all, we collected around £45: not a lot, but I know that people gave generously, and one feels rather like the 'widow' giving her mite as a foreign student on a student budget. We hope and trust that it will, in time, go to alleviate some of the suffering and help in the rebuilding in whatever small way it can. Thankfully, aid from foreign sources does seem to be slowly getting through at last.

Last night, whilst in a local pub having dinner, we saw some of the scenes of destruction from cities in China affected by the earthquake. According to the BBC, there are roughly 22,000 confirmed dead and many thousands missing or unaccounted for, so that figure is likely to skyrocket; there are also 4.5 million people homeless - 4.5 million! Of course, the most moving and haunting scenes were those of people being rescued from collapsed buildings, particularly children. You see such scenes and think of your own child. You can really identify with the loss and anxiety of parents, and this is a way of empathising (by analogy) with the broader situation of loss and suffering.

When confronted in this way, one wants to do something and not be simply a voyeur to suffering, not simply a romantic emotional parasite, turned in on oneself and not responding outwardly. In this day of the television, and even more of the internet, it is easy not only to be confronted with the images, but to respond in some way - primarily through giving money. This seems to me to be a really salutary effect of the internet and the ways we can be connected with it - not that it is everything, or gives us genuine knowledge of the other such as can be gained in a personal relationship, or that it overcomes the process of objectifying the other, not even that it might not be deeply ambiguous in some ways (it can certainly be used by emotional parasites or worse). But it does also open up other salutary opportunities which would not be had so easily otherwise.

Interestingly, I looked into donating to the relief efforts in China as well, and dec.org.uk mentioned that they are not collecting for them because the Chinese government has many resources at hand, and are responding in a competant and admirable (and open! this is somewhat new!) manner. (This is not to say that other reputable agencies are not also collecting for work in China: see, for example, Oxfam, British Red Cross or your local Red Cross agency.)

These are just some ruminations on the recent disasters and the opportunities we have at this particular historical moment, which we have not had in past and which will no doubt be transformed in unexpected ways in future.

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