Was it just a year ago?

Over 100,000 people killed. Thousands missing. Tens of thousands displaced. Mass devastation of farmland and destruction of livestock. Villages gone.

Myanmar. Already suffering and isolated, within hours became even more so. The world’s cameras took us all there in those initial horrific days, and for a very few symbolic moments, we mourned and our senses were appropriately shocked.

We watched and listened and waited for the expected reports of aid getting in, and when we were told there were delays and humanitarian efforts were being hindered, we were outraged. But a week or so later other news items hustled their way into the centre of our attention, and we began to hear and see a little less of this tragedy. Bodies, a week before, living and working and going to school, became a series of numbers in our perceptions of this disaster. And our inevitable default to a clinical assessment of another horrendous event, ensured that we could slot this catastrophe into its rightful folder in our global disasters filing cabinet,  under the convenient heading of  ‘One of the worst natural disasters in recent years.’

A friend of mine commented last week, “My mum died two years ago and I can get my head around that –  its one person. But 100,000?! It’s meaningless, it’s just a number. And when the press packs up and moves on to the next newsworthy story, the meaninglessness of such a number is affirmed.

Another friend introduced me to the line, ‘Numbers have faces and faces have names’. But it seems it’s always the numbers we will remember, and be able to quote in a conversation or a web post! When the cameras leave and we, in a very real sense, leave with them, the question that is haunting me is – What DON’T we see and hear, and therefore what DON’T we continue to want to be informed about, to care about, to do something about.

Has the 21st century’s privileged access to greater and better technology and media presence, fashioned us all into nothing more than head shaking voyeurs, who are horrified for a few moments, and then distracted by the latest mega million Hollywood divorce settlement? Should the cameras and the reporters not only stay at the disaster for more than the obligatory 3 or 5 days, but KEEP coming back so that WE will keep coming back, and keep being outraged when suffering is not alleviated, and more faces unseen, unknown- silently morph into a mere statistic, or a graph on the page of someone’s honours thesis.

100,000 people killed.

A year on, will that fact harness our attention as much as Mel Gibson’s marriage woes? Do we really want to see photos from rural Myanmar that testify to the continuing effects of Cyclone Nargis? Or would we rather see Angelina Jolie pregnant again?

Two weeks after the Myanmar cyclone, the press converged on the province of Sichuan, China. This time an earthquake. Big enough to hit every headline and halt a country of 1.3 billion people. Again we watched, shook our heads, horrified. And again we caught hold of the numbers – all the dead and missing people who hours before had faces and names.

A week or so later, aided by the press, we filed this tragic event away in the same filing cabinet in our minds, also under the heading, ‘ One of the worst natural disasters in recent years’. And we made sure we could at least quote a few salient statistics if a conversation came up.

Was it just a year ago?

There are still families in Sichuan who are waiting to bury their only child, if ever found. And there are still over one million internally displaced persons in Myanmar who struggle daily to live. For them the disaster didn’t end when the cameras left. They are the faces who have names, identities, life. For them, the tragedy will never be passe. It is ever present, always reminding, never receding into a blurred memory, punctuated by a statistic or two.

What is the responsibility of the press in all this? Especially when it has been proven that the length and intensity of media coverage DIRECTLY affects the amount of funding flowing in for a particular disaster.

And what is our responsibility? Perhaps it’s time we begin to change the media’s perception of us – the perception that we would much rather find out what Paris Hilton didn’t wear today, than how the people of China and Myanmar are faring a year on from their respective calamities.

Below are the lyrics to a new song

Little left to say

Was it just a year ago
Our world was stilled
Tried to get my head around
Flick the channels
Who’s been lost and who’s been found
100,000 people killed

Myanmar
I don’t know what to say
What to do
Don’t know how to pray for you

Was it just a year ago
We cried again
Try to get my heart to feel
Flick the channels
Somehow seems unreal
A city gone, people dying in the rain

China
I just don’t know what to say
What to do
Don’t know how to pray for you

Is it just me asking why
The camera has so much to say
Just after all the children die
But even tragedies are now passe
The fourth estate packs up its bags
And goes away

Zimbabwe
don’t know what to say
What to do
Don’t know how to pray for you

Is it just me asking why
The press will stop for one whole day
Or maybe five
To weep and give and want to know
But then there’s little left to say
And we’re all dying to find out what Paris Hilton wore today.

CNN I don’t know what to say
What to do
Don’t know how to pray for you

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