December 30, 2004
Every time you look, the calculated death toll in the seven countries hit hardest by the Indian Ocean tsunamis is higher.
An early estimate was 7,000. Then it was 21,000. Then it was 44,000. By Wednesday morning, it was 77,000. However high it gets, the eventual number dead from disease and lack of food and water could be tens of thousands more if aid is inadequate, experts warn.
Vast amounts of aid will come. Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs who is now backtracking, did no one a favor when he stupidly and insensitively criticized Western nations, including the United States, for purported stinginess the other day.
The United States, which gives more international assistance than the rest of the world combined, had only started its calculations at the time of the remarks, and has since added a pledge of $20 million on top of an earlier pledge of $15 million. The figure will go much higher, and that's not counting the large private contributions that are inevitable in this generous nation.
Many of the drowning deaths — maybe half of them, some say — could have been prevented if a warning system and community security plans had been in place in Indian Ocean countries as they are in the Pacific basin. Certainly such a system should now be put in place, and there can be little doubt that it will be. But the Indian Ocean has not seen a catastrophic tsunami for more than 120 years, and as a professor is quoted as saying, there were gross underestimates of the risk.
As we read stories about people digging graves with their bare hands and of people looting just to find enough to eat, we should understand that the issue of the moment is providing aid just as quickly as it can be provided effectively.