Recent cases of maritime rescues have brought to light an uncomfortable reality: there is an abysmal difference in the use of resources to save diverse but equally valuable lives.

Josep F. Mària, SJ

Recent cases of maritime rescues have brought to light an uncomfortable reality: there is an abysmal difference in the use of resources to save diverse but equally valuable lives.  

On 23 June 2023, the tragic news of the death of five men in a small submarine on their way to visit the wreck of the Titanic was reported in the media. Four of them had paid $250,000 for the adventure, and the fifth was the owner of the submarine company. Ships, planes and helicopters from the US, Canada and France all travelled to the area over the previous days to try to save the lives of these five people.  

A few days earlier, in Greek territorial waters, an Egyptian vessel overflowing with migrants trying to reach Italy, the Adriana, was shipwrecked, causing around 500 deaths. The Greek maritime police who approached the ship were accused of denying it effective assistance. Finally, on 21 June, in Moroccan territorial waters, an inflatable boat on its way to the Canary Islands sank, causing around forty deaths; in this case, the Spanish and Moroccan maritime police were suspected of being at least negligent in their rescue attempts.  

Saving human lives is an ethical imperative. A person’s life is a priceless asset and deserves every effort – human and financial – when it can be rescued. It is a matter of responsibility.  

However, societies have limited financial and human resources, and this ethical imperative runs up against dilemmas. In hospitals in poor countries, health workers sometimes have to choose to give scarce drugs to one patient and leave another untreated. During the recent pandemic, European hospitals had to use the few ventilators they had to treat some patients while leaving others to die. The matter of responsibility is complicated by the matter of justice: how do we calculate the equal distribution of scarce resources in our responsibility for many human lives, each of incalculable value?  

But when it comes to the three maritime rescues presented above, the difference in the calculation of human and material resources used is abysmal – “hurtful”, said one newspaper. And athe difference in the attitudes of the rescuers as well.  

One factor that may contribute to the perpetuation of these hurtful differences is the kind of attention the rescues receive from the media. This attention is reflected in both the quantity of information (newspaper pages, radio and television minutes, etc.) and the quality of this information. In particular, the biographies of the five people who died on their way to the wreck of the Titanic have been published; of the hundreds who died in the other two tragedies, no biographical details have been released.  

Biographies inspire empathy: an empathy that the media takes advantage of when reporting the news to win or retain customers.  

The lives of the rich often elicit more empathy than those of the poor. And those of the poor who are “different” (by skin colour, language, religion, etc.) elicit even less. The problem is that a host of social institutions (in this case, the media) perpetuate these differences. Differences or injustices that end up justifying disparities in the use of material and human resources and in attitudes towards the victims of any tragedy. 

"Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the eternal King" 
Ignatius of Loyola 

"If I walk past a man sleeping among cardboard boxes in an ATM vestibule, three things can occur to me. “Occur” is the right word, because my reaction, no matter how much of the back story I gather, will happen as spontaneously, as detached from rational thought, as a physiological function. I could turn and go on my way unfazed. I could contemplate the wretch as a distant object, safe in the knowledge that I am protected from a similar fate. Or, I could painfully put myself in his skin, feeling in myself all the vulnerability of that body deprived of home and dignity"
Santiago Alba Rico 

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