Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A certain lack of humanity in adversity

Yesterday I saw a series of adverts for Cathay Pacific at Admiralty MTR, each suggesting a different reason to fly with them to Japan. It seemed rather unfortunate given the past few days, but as there are so many adverts for holidaying in Japan in MTR stations, it wasn't that notable. There are more useful things for people to do than worrying about promotional material for a country that is now recovering from an earthquake.

Today, though, I saw Cathay Pacific were using their Facebook page to promote themselves with this:
We have introduced a special one-way economy class fare of HK$5,755 to help passengers without confirmed bookings in Japan to fly back to Hong Kong as soon as possible. For passengers who have bought tickets at the full published fare, we will refund to them the fare difference between the full published fare and this special repatriation fare.
... Which is all well and good, but since I flew with Cathay to Japan and back for HK$4,500 the week beforehand, it looks less like a sincere attempt to help than it does an attempt to gouge people in a pretty poor situation.

As this was Facebook, Cathay's page was soon deluged with angry people complaining about this, along with a few who sought to defend Cathay Pacific for being a business and therefore immune to any concerns about corporate responsibility. Oh, and one genius who said that they shouldn't help anyone come to Hong Kong because then there'd be a mob of homeless, jobless foreigners to feed.
think about the consequences of free flights, people will take advantage of it and all go to HK for holiday some will use it as an escape to find a new life, those people usually have no money, hence they will stuck in HK, can't find work, they will be stranded in HK and become homeless, unemployment goes up, crime rates up, and who are you going to blame after that? the government?
(Seeing as Cathay's super cheap emergency fare was directed at getting people back to Hong Kong you might very well assume they were residents, and this guy was both uncharitable and illiterate.) Maybe Cathay Pacific will be perturbed by the outcry, although unlike the Hong Kong government last week, they can't retaliate with pepper spray when their offer is unappreciated.

There are other factors to consider. Cathay might be using extra planes to fly to Japan (but then it's unlikely many people are flying into Japan right now, and I expect most of the seats were sold on a non-refundable basis, so the operating cost argument seems specious). Or there might be lots of extra risk involved, but then you might think if that were the case, it would be irresponsible to be flying people around when maybe they'd be safer on the ground.  It doesn't seem clear that you should be just putting the price up and profiting from the situation.

As I said yesterday, we have to remain level headed.  I mentioned this to somebody on the way in to the office today, and she pulled out her phone to show me a text she'd received:
BBC, Japan govt confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. If rain comes, remain indoors first 24hrs. Close doors & windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precautions. Radiation may hit Phil at startng 4pm today. Pls send to your loved ones.
At first glance it looked like something from the BBC, except when I checked the BBC's website, I saw no such thing, and the BBC isn't noted for badly written texts about disasters. Of course, it was a hoax, and one that's doing the rounds in Hong Kong and the Philippines, preying on people's fear of nuclear something-or-other, and muddling up rubbing antiseptics on your thyroid with taking iodine supplements. I hope the person who started it was just misguided, but it feels more like something terribly malicious, as if it wasn't enough for what's going on, somebody has to spread more fear and worry.

And then you start to doubt everyone's motives, to the point that I worried that being shown this text was some sort of 'I-told-you-so', somehow demonstrating that I was being hubristic by trying to remain calm and not talk about the radiation like it was impossible to deal with, when any reasonable person should be wailing in despair and rubbing betadine on their skin, lamenting the destruction of Japan forever. Really, this isn't bringing out the best in me either.

But nobody here knows that much. When some journalists flew into Hong Kong airport last night, they were met by a team of officials in full hazmat gear, checking them for radioactivity. Which might have made a tiny bit of sense as they'd flown in from covering the situation in Japan, but they were on a commercial flight and they had been sitting next to other passengers for three or four hours, none of whom got checked. Which makes you wonder if we're thinking about it as some kind of magical, unfathomable thing that we just can't deal with rationally.

And still we don't act like we don't know. I'm not a scientist by training - most of my knowledge of nuclear reactors comes from reading Wikipedia, for goodness' sake, but then I find myself talking to somebody with a physics degree and neither of us can remember the difference between alpha and beta particles, or clearly explain how isotopes form. Maybe I should ask my brother (he's the member of the family who's published articles about the separation of radioactive isotopes from other material, after all) but he's not responding to email at the moment...

And then there's news that an explosion may have cracked a containment vessel in one of the reactors. So now is it time to start rubbing the betadine in? Or do we continue to accept we're not really sure what's going on?  Humans are meant to be rational animals - at a time like this, for those of us looking at Fukushima from a distance, it would be better to be a bit more rational and a bit more humane.


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