Tsunami diverts attention from other crises

Just over a month after a tsunami ravaged much of the Indian Ocean coastline, the outpouring of support given to its afflicted is showing signs of stopping.

The money, supplies and media coverage devoted to the tsunami, however, are overshadowing other crises around the world, including slow-bleeding civil conflicts in regions of Africa, a food shortage in North Korea and infectious disease epidemics worldwide.

Almost immediately after Southeast Asia was hit by massive waves, the world focused its eye on the area's plight. Both Time and Newsweek magazines did cover pieces on the disaster, for instance, and NBC organized a star-studded telethon.

And with the coverage came massive amounts of aid in money, relief supplies and labor. The NBC telethon raised $18 million for tsunami victims.

The United States pledged $350 million. The United Nations World Food Program raised $256 million in record time, according to spokesman Trevor Rowe.

But an ocean's breadth away, the situation is different. Regions of Africa coping with bloodshed provide a grim example of areas receiving a fraction of Southeast Asia's aid.

In Darfur, the western region of the North African country of Sudan, ethnic and civil warfare has claimed more than 400,000 civilian lives since early 2003, according to the Global Information Network.

The situation is worse in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There, the International Rescue Committee, a refugee agency, estimates that ethnic and politically-motivated fighting has killed nearly 4 million people.

At last count, the tsunami was believed to be accountable for about 160,000 deaths.

So far, aid and attention to these and other crises areas has lagged behind that donated to tsunami relief.

The World Food Program has appealed for 500,000 tons of food for North Korea, which it says faces dangerous shortages as the world continues to concentrate on the tsunami, according to the Associated Press.

Jan Egeland, the emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, has said Africa's various crises are being left behind in the wake of the tsunami.

"There are 40, 50 rich countries that can foot the bill of vaccinating children and feeding children, and Africa should have exactly the same worth as the tsunami region," Egeland told Associated Press reporters last week.

Ana Garner, associate dean of graduate studies and research and a specialist in media coverage of natural disasters, said the media attention devoted to the tsunami disaster was due to several factors, one of which was its timing.

The tsunami hit Dec. 26, which falls in a post-holiday news slowdown. The lack of other events for media outlets to cover freed them up to focus on the tsunami disaster.

Another reason the tsunami received more coverage than other crisis areas is because it was a natural disaster as opposed to civil or ethnic conflict.

"All sorts of people have died in those things," Garner said, referring to the conflicts in Darfur and the Congo, "but they are perceived as civil wars and people can look at those and say 'It's not my problem.' It's hard to see how this impacts them."

The tsunami, on the other hand, was a rare and destructive disaster that provided much newsworthy material for hungry media.

Conflicts like those in the Congo and Darfur are difficult to portray, Garner said, because the images they provide often shock or disgust viewers.

"People feel grossed-out by photos of deaths in Darfur and Congo," she said, adding that the rapes, beheadings and maimings reported to occur in these conflicts have a "numbing" effect on viewers.

"It's hard to depict that severity in media coverage," Garner said.

The tsunami, on the other hand, provided lots of photos of less-violent destruction that the media, especially television, could more easily show, according to Garner.

The tsunami "showed lots of destruction that people can see," Garner said. "People look at that and say, 'Those people need clothes. They need medicine.' They feel like they can help."

Rowe, the World Food Program spokesman, said that kind of coverage and the response to it can be parlayed into record-breaking donations.

The aid response to the tsunami was unlike anything he had seen since a famine in the East African nation of Ethiopia in 1983, according to Rowe.

Then, in the absence of modern filming and video technology, a considerable time delay distanced viewers from the crisis.

The tsunami, however, struck when the media was better equipped to transmit its destruction more immediately.

"There was a huge lag time (with the famine), but the tsunami was in real time," Rowe said. "It kept the world awake and focused."

Contributions of aid lag behind in areas of conflict, according to Rowe, because of difficulties in getting the supplies to the afflicted.

Difficult terrain, hostile forces and a lack of infrastructure such as roads and bridges all hamper relief efforts.

"There are always problems there," he said, referring to Darfur and Congo. "We try and respond as quickly as we can, but if our staff is in danger, we just can't."

Kevin Phelan, a spokesman for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, echoed Rowe's comments on the difficulty of getting aid to the right people in war-torn areas.

Doctors Without Borders continues to maintain about 200 aid workers in the Darfur region, for instance, even though an operative of theirs may have been killed in December (proper identification is still pending).

"The needs (there) are enormous," Phelan said, "and we responded as best we could."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 3 2005.