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Editorial: A Giant Wave

If there is one thing you can always rely on when major disasters strike, it is that people wil  spontaneously respond with whatever they can afford to give towards the relief of the survivors, irrespective of nationality, creed or politics. That the efforts of governments so obviously followed the lead of private individuals in this case tells you everything you need to know about their political priorities. And even when governments publicly pledge money, as Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, recently complained, there's no guarantee they'll actually hand over the cash. Much of their 'generosity'  in any case simply involves waiving some of the crushing debt which their control of international trade imposed on these countries in the first place. While states eye each other warily to see what the others are going to do, private individuals start collections without a second thought. While public relations departments sit up at night figuring out how they can help politicians milk the situation, some workers are on the plane at their own  expense to go where volunteers are needed. While governments are always looking for the angle or the pitch, the lowly masses pitch in regardless.

How different are the attitudes of the rich from those of 'ordinary people'. People who have never known wealth and never had money are always the first to put their hands in their pockets when a cruel catastrophe slaughters complete strangers. They are the only ones who put their interests to one
side and act instinctively, without once thinking of themselves, how they 'appear' and what they might get out of it. At times like this, common  humanity shows its true nature in a giant wave of decency, sympathy and solidarity. How unlike our 'important people'. Politicians are furiously  striking the right self-conscious poses and taking the right media-savvy  positions, religious leaders wring their hands and try for the umpteenth time to defend the indefensible, to square the impossible circle of disaster and divine will, and rich celebs fall over each other to toss in a million  or so but never fail to do it in a blaze of publicity. When disaster is in the public eye, these people can always be found eyeing the public. To us, a wall of water is a terrible image. To them, it is merely a backdrop image against which they maneuver to be viewed.

Now the giant wave of publicity has started to ebb and recede. 150,000 more people in the region are severely threatened with water-borne diseases including cholera and typhoid, but the world's media will have gone home before that happens and the forgetfulness will set in. Meanwhile, elsewhere, in the first two weeks since the tsunami struck, approximately 200,000 people have died, quietly and away from the cameras, of simple malnutrition and water-related illnesses. And in the next two weeks, 200,000 more. And again and again. It's the simple background noise of capitalism which passes unnoticed and  unremarked, the lapping of a vast ocean of misery on our hardened consciousness. While the savagery of nature can wring our hearts and empty our purses, the savagery of our social system barely raises an eyebrow. Yet if there is anything positive that can be said about this catastrophe it is that human beings are at heart a caring lot and that if capitalism survives it is because of a lack of people's conviction in their own abilities, and not a lack of depth in their compassion for others.