After the Thai cave rescue, let us not abandon the millions of other suffering kids
The operation to rescue the 12 teenagers and their soccer coach trapped by monsoon floodwaters for 18 days inside the Tham Luang cave in Thailand was a heroic effort in which humanity showed its kindness and caring nature. It demonstrated the readiness of individuals to risk their own lives to save the lives of others, especially children. It also demonstrated an exceptional creativity and ability to improvise, despite severe time constraints and in the face of nature’s adversity. The joy and fascination and jubilation of seeing these young people carried to safety was immense, in a drama worthy of a Hollywood movie — no doubt already in the making.
It is not my intention to spoil the party, as everyone who was involved in this complex operation is a real hero of our time, and we must especially remember former navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died during an operation to deliver oxygen tanks to the trapped teens and their coach. Like so many, I followed closely the news of the trapped boys and the rescue operation with hope and trepidation. Watching the footage of the rescue, even after knowing that it had been successful, is still a terrifying experience. I can only imagine what the rescued and the rescuers were going through. And to see the group of youngsters in hospital recovering from their ordeal was a real cause for joy and pride in what humanity can do for the greater good when it puts its mind to it. While they all look to be in good physical shape, no one should be under any illusion that their recovery from this terrible trauma will take a long time.
Yet, while not belittling by any means the heroics of saving a group of young people whose lives were in real and imminent danger, this event also raises the question of why such one-off dramatic situations can prompt our compassion, our attention and our generosity, while this is not the case in more “routine” situations in which millions of children face suffering and death every day of the week, while we opt to remain as bystanders. In many parts of the world, children, as much as adults, are trapped in wars and conflicts, trafficked and abused, suffer from hunger, poverty and disease, drown in makeshift and overcrowded boats, and are forced into hard labor or soldiering — yet far too often the global community chooses to pass by on the other side of the road.
In a world obsessed with instant gratification, where immediacy rules, the real victims are those millions of people who require our long-term attention and empathy.
In each of the above-mentioned hardships and life-threatening situations and conditions there is plenty that we can do to improve, and even save, so many young people’s lives. According to the global non-governmental organization Save the Children, “5.6 million children under five died in 2016, most from conditions we know how to prevent or treat.” The cause of death of half of these children was malnutrition; in other words in a world that is capable of producing more food than it can possibly consume, and that is even destroying food to keep prices high, children are dying of hunger. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is another major cause of human suffering and adversely affects life expectancy. According to the World Health Organization, about 1.1 billion people, in rural areas or urban slums, are still forced to rely on unsafe drinking water from rivers, lakes and open wells. Children suffer worst from illnesses caused by drinking contaminated water. Meanwhile, more than 100 countries and non-state actors are recruiting child soldiers who are used not only for fighting and killing, but also sexually abused.
This is just a partial picture of the unacceptable conditions that so many of the world’s children are forced to endure. Many of them die prematurely as a result. Many are suffering from long-term effects of the hardships they face even before they enter adulthood, which greatly jeopardizes their chances of leading a normal life. But unlike the concerted international effort that we saw in the rescue of the young Thai soccer players, only sporadic and less-than-convincing efforts are directed at saving millions of other children, or even just alleviating their suffering. It seems that in a world in which attention spans are short, very short in fact, empathy also has a limited shelf life, especially in the more-developed economies. We can maintain a high level of concern for a well-defined issue, but only for a strictly limited time.
Without intending to be flippant or dismissive, the rescue mission in Thailand has something of the voyeurism that has become such a central element of this era of leisure and entertainment, epitomized and influenced by the curse of “reality” shows. And let us face it, what happened in those remote caves, and the way it was covered by the media, certainly had the flavor of a reality show. Not for the rescuers, the children or their families, but for viewers around the world. It fitted the parameters of modern journalism and social media: It was short, sharp and dramatic. Whatever way it was going to end, it was always going to make a great story and keep us on the edge of our seats all the way through. Thankfully, it had a happy ending, albeit that one of the divers lost his life. But in a world obsessed with instant gratification, where immediacy rules, the real victims are those millions of people who require our long-term attention, empathy and devotion to protect them from the misfortunes of nature, and mistreatment at the hands of other humans.
We all rejoiced at the rescue of the Thai soccer team. Yet, when the celebrations are over and these teenagers and their coach go back to their normal lives, will it not be time to divert our attention to those many millions of children around the world who face dangerous conditions, abuse and extreme hardships every day, and address their suffering as if they were one of those members of the Wild Boars team — or even better, as if they were our own children?
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.