Thursday, December 30, 2004

Princes and Paupers of Indian Ocean

In medieval times one of the most popular images on church murals, at least in Western Europe, was made of princes, clergymen, knights, traders, serfs – all joined in one huge wheel dancing together with skeletons. This symbolic image was there to remind people that their social standing didn't matter in the end. Whether you were prince or pauper, you still had to die.

I was reminded of this image while reading reports about tsunami in Indian Ocean. The size of disaster, together with simple banality which it unfolded, has struck the rich Western tourists with the same effect as the poor natives. Just like the medieval plagues, this disaster also made all class, ethnic and other differences moot, at least temporarily. Poor Indian fishermen suffered exactly the same fate as the royalty and celebrities vacationing hundreds of miles away.

Some would like to portray this disaster as some kind of divine retribution or Mother Gaia striking back at the nations or classes that had exploited her the most. In a sense, they may be right about well-to-do being more likely to perish than those who are not. The least likely Westerners to survive were those who had spent small fortunes to build their own private pieces of tropical paradise on the most isolated beaches, and therefore, most expensive beaches. Then again, they also managed to drag many more impoverished locals with them – many small insignificant atolls would have remained uninhabited if not for rich Westerners and their great need for local labour.

While the toll is still being counted, this disaster has already created its own set of morbid trivia that shows how connected the world is. For example, based on the bodycount alone, this appears to be the worst disaster in Norwegian history despite happening on the other side of the planet.

This disaster will also, at least temporarily, shake the faith in the divine status of the world's celebrities. The events in Indian Ocean show that they are mortals after all.

Jet Li, for example, barely survived. Arthur C. Clarke has lost his diving school. And Richard Attenborrrough was probably the least lucky of them all. Whenever anyone sees Jurassic Park, he would probably remember that Attenborrough, unlike the character he had played in the movie, couldn't save his grandchildren from the tropical paradise turned into hell.


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