Published: 06/01/2005, Volume II5, No. 5937 Page 8
In my teens I used to wonder why such dreadful natural disasters always seemed to occur during the Christmas holidays. It was only after being a journalist for a few years that I realised that such things happen regularly, but a busy world only has the free time to appreciate their enormity when it has already taken a few days off.
The Asian tsunami is a disaster on a far larger scale than the earthquake at Bam in Iran last Christmas or the New Zealand airliner that flew a festive crowd into a mountain on the South Pole some years back. The busy world could never have ignored Banda Aceh.
Nonetheless my hunch is that the huge, moving response of individuals, voluntary agencies and governments around the world is partly attributable to the fact that everyone was watching the horror at home (Christmas is a holiday in the non-Christian world nowadays) and could easily identify with the victims. We all go to the beach, do not we? We all watch TV. More and more of us have video cameras.
More than that, the whole world was involved at the sharp end.
African fishermen in Somalia as well as Asian peasants and hotel workers in Thailand and Indonesia. Wealthy tourists, British-Asian reporters on the spot in Sri Lanka and India.
Everyone except Americans, who do not seem to holiday in Phuket.
The US role in the drama was tragic in a different way: the seismic boffins in Hawaii knew what was happening, but it was still 3pm on Christmas Day on their side of the dateline. They couldn't raise anyone.
I find that believable, so do most hospital managers, I suspect. But also odd: couldn't they ring the White House or the Pentagon, dammit? I have the numbers. do not they?
The failure of communication in a well-wired, information-rich world leads me to two themes which will trouble your world and mine in the coming year.
One is the blame game, which took longer than usual to break out after the tsunami. Could governments have done more before (an Indian Ocean warning system) and after the event? Yes, of course, though one can see why, for instance, the Thais played down the tsunami risk for fear of frightening its rich tourists. Once we would have called it 'an act of God' and shrugged.
That explanation was famously undermined by Voltaire after the earthquake/tsunami that devastated Lisbon in 1755. The default position, that accidents will happen, has since been gradually chipped away by the belief that mankind can solve anything with money, expertise and will-power: NHS waiting lists, cancer, tsunamis.
Blaming someone, preferably someone we can sue, offers apparent consolation and a focus for displaced anger, but it is far better to campaign, as many bereaved people do, to make sure the same awful fate does not befall strangers.
Blame will feature in the coming general election. Tony Blair will be blamed for the failures of the Iraqi occupation - largely the fault of the US occupation strategy and the disastrous, murderous Sunni insurrection in the US zone.
He may be blamed for not doing enough to save the environment, although global warming cannot be blamed for the tsunami. My hunch is that Mr Blair will not get too much blame for NHS performance.
If he does he will shamelessly blame the Tory legacy.
The second theme which will loom large in 2005 is freedom of information. As you know, patients and journalists can now start asking all sorts of questions about GP or hospital performance or (as happened on day one) what the local council's health inspectors found wanting in the food hall at Harrods.
Some of my chums in government are gloomy about this. They have heard conflicting legal advice about what exactly they must hand over and whether it has to be done in 20 days ('just one request a month would take two civil servants' time to check the paper work, ' says one) and fear it will cripple the system.
Sounds familiar? I bet it does.
I am more optimistic. There will be a shambles and cries of outrage by conspiracy theorists who are drawn to freedom of information like bees to honey. But it will settle down. The NHS will get used to it and its customers may be wiser and happier. Good luck.
Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.