Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What can you do?

At some point it all becomes too much to take in. When the numbers of expected dead become 10,000 plus you struggle to think of it in real terms. I grew up in a country town of 2,000, so that would mean it and 4 other similar sized towns are gone – everyone in them dead. And you realise that means that like any town, the profile of the dead will be like the profile of the population – there will be young and old.

Even on a per capita basis the number is too large to grasp. 10,000 (and even that number seems a hopeful maximum) would be the equivalent of a disaster occurring in Australia that took around 1760 lives. To put that in context, the horrible Black Saturday Victorian Bushfires of 2009 killed 173 people. Half a million people are in evacuation centres… again – that would be like around nearly 89,000 people in Australia. Except in reality we don’t get to do the maths to make the figure small: half a million people displaced; 10,000 dead.

How the hell do you begin to rebuild?

Coming on top of the tragedy in Christchurch and the floods and cyclones in Queensland it all just overwhelms.

And so you donate again, and you worry again about friends.

As I’ve written before, I spent a year in 1989 living in Japan as an exchange student. Thankfully my host parents (who visited last year) live 35km south east of Tokyo so they were in no danger, but still you worry, and hope that the nuclear power station in Fukushima does not end as bad as you think it could. You then think about the 50 workers who are battling the fires and the explosions in the station and doing all they can to make things safe and stable, and you wonder, how do you volunteer to do something like that? Could I? Would I? And please God may I never have to make a similar choice.

On Sunday I joked with a friend that would we be seeing a press conference mirroring that in The Simpsons where Mr Burns says of Homer:

His bravery and quick thinking have turned a potential Chernobyl into a mere Three Mile Island.

Now it’s kind of at the point where you would almost be happy with a “mere” Three Mile Island.

I have had to stop looking at the images and vision. It has gone beyond providing me with news – the devastation is clear, the loss of life is obvious. This is not to deride the journalists there – in fact I think the coverage of the aftermath (since Monday) has been brilliant: honest and not mawkish; informative and not hyperbolic; though not in anyway discounting the hyperbole of the tragedy (though I must admit I have only watched ABC and bits of Sky). But there’s only so much I can take before I start to feel almost numb to it – as though only the pictures of a baby being saved will bring more emotion – and I don’t want to slip into that zone.

I still read the reports and listen to the amazing coverage on ABC radio, but I am trying to avoid the TV.

I don’t need to see it, it is enough to know, and there are things I don’t want to see.

One thing worth seeing is this clip which circulated around on Twitter by a few on YouTube of an animation of the series of earthquakes since 9 March. It is quite stunning and haunting in its own way.

And yet that is not all we have to comprehend.

In Africa and the Middle East death and killing are in overdrive. Take this cheery introduction to a story for The World Today:

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Martial law has been declared in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain to try to quell weeks of protest by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority.
At least three people have died in clashes between protesters and government backed security forces.

As Bahrain cracks down on opponents, heavy fighting continues in Libya between government and rebel forces. Colonel Gaddafi's troops have isolated the last major town remaining between Tripoli and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The Libyan leader says he is determined to crush the rebellion and warns of a Holy War with the West.

Mark Colvin of the ABC’s PM released some audio of a Bahraini man who was shot at while talking to him. There’s no shooting in this audio clip, but the fear in the man’s voice is obvious.


imageThe reports from Bahrain are not good.

Military troops have opened a large-scale assault against hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying a landmark site in Bahrain's capital.

The focal point for Bahrain's demonstrators was again overrun by riot police in a nationwide crackdown aimed at crushing the two-month anti-government uprising.

Smoke was billowing from the site, known as Pearl roundabout, and the scent of teargas wafted through many locations in Manama.

Gunfire was heard throughout the capital and at least five helicopters were circling scenes of clashes, amid widespread panic on the streets below.

On the domestic side of things we have a breakout of asylum seekers on Christmas Island being shot by police with “bean bag bullets” which I’m going to suggest are a bit less fun than they sound.

It would be nice if this would lead to a sensible debate, and yet the only solution we get from the other side is “stop the boats”. Given Libya and Bahrain, I don’t see that happening any time soon….

Whatever happens on the domestic front, one thing we know is that when parliament resumes next week, it will begin, as it has each time it has resumed this year, with a condolence motion due to a natural disaster.

May it be the last this year.

And so we carry on. We cannot stop our own lives because of horror elsewhere. And I don’t think we should feel guilty about having a laugh either, even on a day where there is so much horror to be found wherever you choose to look. I think in perhaps reaction to the grim news around the world things actually got a bit silly today – so for example we had Tony Abbott being asked this on FM radio in Wollongong:

PRESENTER: Seriously, so, the only question I want to know is were you thinking of having a chest wax any time soon?

TONY ABBOTT: What, to get rid of my love rug?

(I hope you’re not eating).

We also had a bit of a go round of the vision of the Israeli model with fake breasts getting bitten by a snake. were running the line that the snake died of silicone poisoning. This is despite it not actually being true (sometimes they make life just too easy for Media Watch).

But for me the best relief was found on the website where Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do their own version of Star Wars.

As Matt Price said, “Life is fragile, hug your loved ones”… and I would also add – Do what you can. Keep informed. But don’t forget how to laugh either.


polyquats said...

On the money, as usual, Grog.
I've taken to following the IFRC's photo stream in Flickr, for a mix of the real and the positive.

It might be mean, but I seriously do not want to hear another word from the families of Aussies in Japan who are worried cos they haven't posted on Facebook and DFAT can't tell them right now where and how they are. Have they no idea?

Anonymous said...

dear sir
thank you for this sensitive and thoughtful post; you are a prince among bloggers.

Yowie9644 said...

Dear Polyquats, do you have any idea what its like to have not heard a peep from loved ones who are in the area of a fatal disaster?

If you truly have no idea what that's like, then all I can say is: "lucky you".

jez said...

Yowie9644, I think that we all have sufficient sensitivity to imagine how a member of a family with someone missing in any type of a disaster would feel.

What I do question, however, is the way that those family members berate the Australian Government for not having at the very least rescued their loved ones instantaneously (ok, slight exaggeration, but the modus operandi of instant gratification has its downside as well).

polyquats said...

I'm quite sure that I would be frantic, devastated, and sick with worry.
But hopefully, I would also be realistic, understanding of the people who were trying to help and the difficulties involved, concerned about all the other people in the same or similar situation, and have better ways of coping than whining continually to any media hack who is looking for a cheap story.

Jeremy said...

Wait, are you sure the Bahraini man was shot while talking with Colvin? The transcript has him saying they're being shot at, but not that he's actually been shot.

Excellent post, though, as usual.

(my word verification text was "suesme", I kid you not)

Greg Jericho said...

Cheers Jeremy - I was just going by Mark Colvin's tweet and what was on the audio clip. I didn't take it as meaning shot dead. Will fix.

I keep meaning to make a list of he word verification "words". I think there's a "Meaning of Liff" book there somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Dear Yowie9644
Having worked at DFAT Consular and been closely involved with Australians who lost family members in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2005, I have observed at close hand the range of their emotions and reactions. My mother was also involved in a bus crash while on a Women's Weekly tour in Taiwan in 1970, which I heard about on the radio and had to wait for info about her safety from the travel agency, in the days before DFAT became Australia's international nanny.
No-one doubts that it is traumatic not to know what is going on, but I think Polyquats' question is why do the worried families feel the need to share their anxiety with the whole nation? A question I would also like answered.
It's a strange thing but the only way DFAT could know where all Australians were overseas at any given moment would be to embed a GPS chip under their skins. I think you can imagine the outcry. In fact it might surprise you to know that many Australians living overseas do not actually want to be found - they have chosen not to have contact with their families.

Anonymous said...

Just to tie your last two posts together, having just watched Rudd on Lateline, I was reminded of Bolt's petulant spray on The Insiders last Sunday, where he accused Rudd of "showboating" about the nuclear consequences in Japan. Bolt claimed it would have no effect on Australia so was an irrelevance. As Polyquats, Yowie et al have noted, there is genuine concern in Australia for at least some of the estimated 11,000 Australians living in Japan, not to mention the rescue workers who have gone there as part of the international response.
Bolt is an ignoranus (yes, I meant it).

Jaeger said...

"What can you do?" On these scales, not a lot. Laughter is a fine suggestion, though!

Casablanca said...

A stirring call to arms from the PM at Adelaide Uni (Wednesday 16 March 2011)

I gather that a mere handful of anti-carbon tax protesters answered the call from Cory Bananas.

Link said...

It is all too overwhelming even for the onlookers. The grief and anxiety of knowing that so much has been so utterly detroyed and so many friend and relatives swept away on top of that the invisible threat of being rained or snowed upon by deadly radiation, reminds me of what's his names line, how much can a koalabear?

What is marvellous is the insight we are getting into the amazing, gracious, civil society that is Japan. The young boy at the supermarket door bowing hurriedly to those trying to get in as he is forced to shut the door. The world has a big lesson to learn from Japan about decency, mutual respect and grace in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Anonymous said...

A very Thought provoking piece .

Brought me close to a tear. Without getting to deep - Hope sensitive hearts give us the wealth that is needed to die gracefully
as others that have ~ and are ~ daily, in all circumstances

Alistair Baillieu-McEwan said...

I have three relatives currently in Japan, fortunately with one of them fluent in the Japanese language. I count myself extremely lucky that there is internet access to so much information, maps and answers to queries regarding distances, travel modes and so on. I'm shunning much of the Australian media input in favour of Japanese streams in English and trying to balance one opinion against another - a task which would have been impossible not so long ago.

Anonymous said...

Yes Grog the enormity of the loss of life is hard to comprehend for us in Australia. I’ve had a couple of trips as a volunteer to Aceh on tsunami aid project where 167,000 people lost their life. And none of the niceties of the Christchurch earthquake and the Black Saturday bushfires where the coroner would not release a body until 100% satisfied with identity. One mass burial grave in Banda Aceh has 46,000 bodies!! Loved ones wishing to mourn the loss of loved ones just go to the mass burial site nearest to where they think the person may have been at the time of the tsunami.

obakesan said...

as one who lived for 3 years in Tokyo I can echo your feelings. I'm glad my friends and loved ones in Japan are doing well still