Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The lessons from the those scenes of disaster

VICTORIA - So what should we learn from the tsunami? A host of lessons, big and small, remarkably random - like the event itself.
We should learn to rethink our eagerness to dispatch supposedly specialized grief counsellors to deal with this and other events. The Vancouver school district had its critical incident teams at the ready to fan out into schools and work with traumatized or troubled students.
It is a good time for teachers to discuss the events, linking them to the lessons students are learning in geography or history. And it's useful to be alert for individuals who are affected in some profound way. But death and disaster are part of life, and our children know that, and can deal with the images they see. The penchant for dispatching grief counsellors - who have been found to do more harm than good in many studies - is an unnecessary waste of scarce resources.
We should get a grip on our self-righteous and self-indulgent tendencies to assume the worst. News photos showing tourists on beaches days after the tsunamis sparked outraged letters to the editor about insensitive and selfish visitors. But maybe the people had spent the rest of the day clearing debris; maybe they were injured; maybe in shock. Why assume the worst? In any case, the tourists - and those who will press on with their vacations in coming months - are bringing needed income to the people in those communities.
The media also worked itself into a frenzy about the threat of children being abducted in the wake of the disaster, and forced into the sex trade or child labour. But the case that sparked the initial furore, involving fears a 12-year-old Swedish boy had been taken from a hospital - was proved unfounded. The risk may exist, and countries involved may need to take action. But there is little evidence of an immediate problem justifying the headlines and hand-wringing, and our response looks more prurient than prudent.
We should take lessons about our own level of preparation for a disaster, collectively and individually. Someday the earthquake or tsunami or forest fire could be here, and it's prudent to make sure we have sensible precautions in place. (Note the adjective sensible - sometimes safety measures aren't justifiable, given a reasonable assessment of the real risk and the costs.)
We should celebrate our generousity. Individuals, businesses, countries have all stepped forward to help people half-a-world away. There are lots of opportunities to learn from what we have done, and be more focused and effective in future. But it's important to recognize that faced with a crisis people responded.
At the same time we should recognize that need and suffering exist every day, even if we aren't faced with terrible images, and it's within our power to make a huge difference globally and locally. The tsunami disaster death toll so far is about 150,000 people, a number beyond imagining.
But it pales besides starvation and disease and the slow-motion disasters that kill far more people every year. Estimates of the death rate from AIDs in Africa range as high as 6,500 a day. Every three weeks, a loss of life on the scale of the tsunami takes place. About 700,000 children will die around the worlds this year of measles, a loss of life that is preventable with adequate resources. Some eight million child deaths each year are due to malnutrition, and are preventable.
We should still rightly celebrate our generousity. But we should also recognize that the need is great, and will continue long after the media have moved on.
And finally, we should take some time to give thanks for what we have, not just our homes and our comforts, but the people around us. The stories of miraculous escapes, and massive death, should remind us how fragile all this is and how quickly it can change. Every day must count.
Footnote: One of the greatest lessons from the disaster is the courage of the people who live there. The waves had barely receded; their friends and families had died; they had lost everything; and they began rebuilding their homes and small businesses. It's an act of desperation, to be sure, but it is also an act of hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Paul, as mentioned inyour column, grief counsellors were available butr they were not shoved down any body's throat or soliciting kids to talk to.This reactiveness which you support by your vague alludance to studies which show the harm done by debriefing teams is a cheap shot. There are some articles which question the outcomes in debriefing interventions and many which point to how valuable this intervention is for many individuals.This libertarian or macho approach to dealing with stress is much more damaging than any intervention practiced by a trained individual.Talking about something which is distressing does not make you weaker.Many families in Vancouver are immigrant families with relatives and loved ones in those areas affected. The VSB showed responsibility in offering this service and you ahve misconstrued it's intent , indicating it undervalues people's ability to cope with disaster or death.maybe you may want to look at this issue and think it through.