by Kevin Sims
Disaster by Numbers
I WOULD guess that Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – Joseph Stalin to most people – has probably not been quoted in All the World before. I’m no fan of ‘Uncle Joe’ but there’s no doubt he had some insight into what makes people tick. The quotation that caught my eye when I was putting this magazine together was: ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’
It’s cynical, unpleasant and – sadly – true. When one person dies we feel some sense of empathy, we can easily put ourselves in the position of the deceased’s friends or family. A large number of deaths provokes a very different reaction – it’s almost impossible to comprehend 1,000 deaths or 10,000 yet alone a million. It inevitably becomes just a number. Mind you, I’d argue that it’s a tragedy if a million deaths is only a statistic.
Of all disasters in recent times, the Indian Ocean tsunami is most at risk of becoming just about numbers. Estimates of the final death toll vary but some suggest up to 300,000 people lost their lives – a staggering number – and that’s before you begin to think about the millions who lost their homes and livelihoods. Imagine waking up one day to discover that major cities such as Cardiff in Wales, Buffalo in the USA or Alice Springs in Australia have simply ceased to exist and you may begin to get an idea of the devastation dealt by the tsunami.
Disaster on this scale can still seem unreal though. I watched a TV show set in Pompeii during the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius and it was easy to forget, in the middle of this famous moment in history, that tens of thousands of people lost their lives. It made me wonder how long it will take for the tragedy of lives lost in the tsunami to be replaced by history recalling the sheer scale – the enormity – of the disaster. Enormity is a particularly good word on this occasion because today it denotes huge size, but its original meaning was ‘a grave crime’, and many people had their lives and futures stolen by the tsunami.
In this issue of All the World are stories, reports and some more astonishing numbers, though these numbers record hope, not despair. They show the incredible development work, rebuilding lives, homes and communities, carried out by The Salvation Army in Christ’s name over the past three-and-a-half years – and which in some places is still ongoing. Again, the numbers only begin to tell the story and the millions of dollars donated by the public and through other agencies show the result of an unprecedented outpouring of love, a desperate need to do something.
That so many people died in the tsunami is unspeakably terrible but this issue celebrates the good that has come from the response to this disaster. For some people who have been helped by The Salvation Army – and other agencies – their lives will be better today than before the tsunami. This is backed up by the phrase highlighted by Major Ted Horwood as describing the ‘international intervention’ – ‘Build Back Better’.
Perhaps Stalin’s well-judged cynicism can be adapted to show humanity in a more positive light: ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million lives made better is a miracle.’