This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine
Malaysian Airlines deeply regrets what? The delay or cancellation to your flight? Perhaps they apologise for not “the” but “any” inconvenience caused. As we now know, they expressed their deep regret by SMS message to hundreds of traumatized relatives “that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”
As I write the Australian authorities are still trying to locate and salvage possible wreckage.
We know that within a few hours of that statement the airline put out a tweet to point out that no one was being contacted by text alone: “SMS and phone calls were made to those who [were] not in the hotels via our family support centre. We wanted to ensure that families [were] informed via all channels.”
While that clarification is important, the whole incident confirms the sense that the airline and the Malaysian government – a state notorious for corruption – were primarily focused on their own image management.
The families of MH370 had been turned into the one thing we all dread being turned into – numbers. We’d seen it before. We saw it when Nadezhda Tylik, mother of submariner Lt Sergei Tylik, lost in the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 was forcibly sedated with a syringe to shut her up as she haranged newly elected President Putin at a public meeting over the cover up and inept rescue attempt by the Russian naval authorities.
When we become hysterical, it is out of desperation; almost inevitably because we have been misled, ignored and treated by officials as a hindrance. In China there is a growing history of this kind of protest, notably in the rallies of Sichuan families, nearly five thousand of whose children died in school collapses in the 2008 earthquake, because of shoddy construction thanks to the collusion of corrupt building firms and local officials.
Here in Britain, while most are proud of the NHS, too many people have experienced the horror of feeling just another number in the system. Every winter there are the cases, usually reported only on the local news, of the parents who had pleaded with doctors, but were sent home and told to give paracetamol to infants who in fact had meningitis. Theirs is the agony of having allowed their instincts to be overruled by officials, focused on processing numbers. They would no doubt have been made to feel like demanding “fusspots”.
When statistics show the odds of missing such a case are small, some will find their family become that statistic. Once your loved one has died, the authorities will find the resources to perhaps offer counselling, investigate with an inquest and in some cases, even a more specialized inquiry. Perhaps it will make the news itself one day. Maybe care practice will change. New guidelines will be issued. But nothing changes the fact that a person you loved is gone, because officials turned us into numbers.
In my clean and welcoming local NHS hospital there are notices up encouraging families to make full use of extensive visiting hours and to be present at meal times. I have no doubt that the extensive news reporting of the scandals elsewhere of poor patient care, such as in Mid-Staffordshire have made such institutions take note and improve their standards.
For an essential part of the distress of the families of Flight MH 370 is the disinformation that they have experienced from the local government and the airline. It was the presence of a large international media corp from democratic states that ensured the authorities’ every action, or inaction, was under the spotlight. Conspiracy theories flourish when there is no trust in the structures of the state. The filmmaker Errol Morris said recently that “conspiracy theories are optimistic. Because you’re saying that, instead of chaos, someone is pulling the strings. Somewhere, there is some kind of rhyme and reason to history.”
Disasters happen. Failings in the system may have caused them. But not always. What we need is accountability and truth. We’ve seen in countries such as Russia that corrupt authoritarian systems are on the rise again; usually in collusion with corrupt big business interests. When you turn passengers and, as opponents to the government’s NHS changes argue, patients, into customers, what is the priority when things go wrong? It isn’t usually the relatives or the truth.
Why Malaysia will say almost nothing about the missing plane (Business Week March 2014)