Epidemic Indifference

Western tourists sunbathe in the aftermath of disaster

As the working populace returns to the office after its turn-of-the-year holiday, struggling with the misery of the daily grind, with the loss of nine-to-five freedom, and (in many cases) with newly-gained weight, the last thing that anyone needs is a blunt reminder that others remain on holiday—having too much fun.

For that reason alone, a much published and reproduced photograph taken Jan. 2 in Patong, in southern Thailand is unsavory. Two men, beers in hand, stand on a sandy beach in the tropical sunshine, hard at work on their respective tans. But there is something deeply disturbing about the image. Behind the tourists is a massive pile of debris, a jarring reminder of the tragic tsunami that swept through South Asia—and tens of thousands of lives—on Dec. 26. In the aftershock of this cataclysmic disaster, with a death toll expected to surpass 150,000 and an expected cost surely to be counted in the billions of dollars, two undeterred tourists imbibe on the beach, obviously more keen on finishing their vacation than on lending a much-needed helping hand to the massive relief effort. Their senseless indifference to this terrible loss and to the plight—ongoing and forthcoming—of those whose cheap labor made their vacationing possible in the first place, to say nothing of the 2,400 foreign visitors counted among Thailand’s dead, is staggering.

To many, the West has a lot of explaining to do. It’s true that many who work in the resort and service industries in the developing world owe their livelihoods to western tourists, callers and customers. However, a massive number of people in the areas devastated by last month’s tsunami, live on dollars—or less—a day providing goods and services taken for granted by their users in and from the rich West. It is this group of poorly paid workers, who live in, albeit measured by western standards, abject poverty, that was devastated by the deadly waves of December. From such a perspective, the image of (literally) bloated western tourists in bathing suits, drinking beer on a Thai beach is nothing short of repulsive.

The photographs of relaxing western tourists, which have run in newspapers around the world, smack of gluttony, ignorance and even depraved indifference for human lives. World, and especially western, governments who have pledged billions in emergency relief cannot be satisfied by the contradictory message sent by hedonistic tourists carrying on their vacations as if nothing happened. Muslims, who constitute a large proportion of the population in much of the tsunami-affected area, cannot be comfortable at tourists’ consumption of alcohol under any circumstances, least of all when they are spending their days in a desperate search for a future. Most of all, however, Thais, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and their South Asian neighbors must be furious with the visitors to their countries who ignore their efforts to salvage what remains of their devastated lives, choosing instead to catch a few rays on the beach.

Good intentions aside, when it comes to tsunami-affected resort areas, there’s only so much that private donations and corporate (and university) fund matching can fix.

Much ink has been spilled in description of the decline of the stature of America and the West in the eyes of the rest of the world. Anyone seeking some form of explanation for the sorry state of America’s (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the western world’s) international reputation need look no further than widely-circulated pictures of westerners imbibing just a stone’s throw from calamity. Most of those who resent the United States do so not out of impatience at the American snubbing of diplomacy in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq or out of distrust of the Bush administration, but rather out of frustration with the very generally perceived arrogance summed up so succinctly by two tourists drinking and tanning on a Thai beach, turning a blind eye to the devastation and disaster that surrounds them.

These pictures speak thousands of words: Let’s hope someone is listening.

Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.