Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Asian Tsunami

18/01/2005
Devastating as the Boxing Day Tsunami was, its casualty list, climbing towards 180,000, suggests less loss of life than several other natural disasters over the last millennium. The Black Death which raged in Europe between 1346 and 1405 spread from Asia to the Mediterranean, and then throughout Europe. Philip Ziegler's standard work on the catastrophe tells of whole villages being wiped out. The recent historian of Europe, Norman Davies, says that between 50 and 66% of people in some English towns died of the pestilence that was believed initially to be caused by foul air, and more recently by fleas carried on rats. The latest research suggests an unidentified virus was the likely culprit. According to Davies, approximately 30% of the total population of Europe was killed by the Black Death.

The Great Plague of Britain between 1664 and 1666, and the fire of London that destroyed 90% of the city in September 1665, disposed of well over 100,000 people according to Walter Bell who has written about the plague. Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography talks of pits 20 feet deep being dug to bury the corpses, and of distraught relatives flinging themselves in with the dead. Once more the rat has been blamed, although again a mystery virus seems more probable.

The Irish potato famine also rates as an appalling natural catastrophe. It began in 1845 when the crops turned black with blight in a country that had fecklessly become over-reliant on one staple crop. The potato failed for five more years. Irish historian J.C. Beckett estimates that one million people died of starvation. I'll never forget gazing over a heaped up famine graveyard near Cork in which more than 50,000 bodies had been tipped, its eerie serenity belying the hideous last days of life for its inhabitants. Not surprisingly, many younger survivors decided to emigrate. A country with nine million people in 1845 is home today to five million, although the Irish diaspora now numbers 40 million.

Leaving aside the catastrophes of the two wold wars that between them killed somewhere close to 100 million, the 1918 influenza epidemic is thought to have carried off an additional 20 million people world-wide in the final stages of the first war. Whole families were wiped out over two months. About 8,500 of them were New Zealanders in what rates as our worst natural disaster. An old friend told me how he'd stood for many minutes, hat in hand, watching a train stacked with coffins making its way slowly towards Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland in November 1918. The crowded central parts of Wellington, most especially Te Aro, were badly hit, too, and historian Geoffrey Rice tells us that more than 4% of the Maori population expired in the pandemic.

Plagues kill people. They don't usually damage infrastructure, although with the 1665 fire and the rapid urban renewal after 1918, city landscapes changed for the better. Governmental interest in housing the poor dates in large measure from 1918. The Asian Tsunami, like many earthquakes in China that have each killed hundreds of thousands, and Bangladeshi cyclones, and the recent Iran earthquake, all did huge damage to survivors' capacities to rebuild their lives. Yet the consequences of earthquakes and tsunamis more closely resemble the instant damage inflicted by warfare. The recent tragedy has been compared, appropriately, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki where on 6 and 9 August 1945, well over 200,000 people were killed, injured or went missing, presumed dead. Ninety percent of Hiroshima was levelled by the atomic bomb and its consequent fires. But the catastrophes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were geographically confined, and the rebuilding process therefore somewhat easier, than will be the case with the tsunami. On Boxing Day many local economies seem to have been wiped out, and several remote tribes virtually extinguished.

What will mark out this latest bewildering disaster is that the citizens of so many countries were directly affected. The globalisation of tourism has clearly become the major factor in post-tsunami aid. While the destruction is wide-spread, most affected countries were hosting a wide variety of nationalities at the time. The promises of aid dwarf previous pledges, and there will be closer monitoring of the delivery of assistance than was the case with the recent Iran earthquake. These days, the more global a problem, the more global the response. Historians tell us that tourists spread earlier plagues in Europe. Ironically, this time they look like being the key to reconstruction.