The immense and heartbreaking devastation resulting from the tsunamis that were caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Dec. 26 brings home in an unavoidable way something we prefer not to acknowledge most of the timenamely, just how fragile life can be.
As of this writing, the death toll stands at 84,000. But untold thousands more are still missing and unaccounted for. Indeed, one of the most staggering aspects of this tragedy is how the death toll has been galloping ever higher. The present toll has quadrupled (in a couple of days) the initial estimate of 20,000 dead.
Experts say that the second wave of deathcaused by disease in the aftermath of the floodingcould produce a number of victims that equals or exceeds that which came directly as a result of the tsunamis.
In this country we have no direct experience of a natural disaster that exacts such an exceedingly high toll in livescertainly nothing in the range of 20,000not to mention 80,000in one fell swoop.
Yet in this age of instant communication, the agony of a father who has lost his wife and children in Cuddalore, India, can touch us as deeply as if it were our next-door neighbor. The apprehension of a mother in Phuket, Thailand, desperately looking at pictures of deceased victims causes our own heart to knot up in anguish.
In this country, intimations of the fragility of life are more likely to come from man-made tragedies with smaller (although still disturbing) death tolls or on the level of a single person passing unexpectedly. That is why the unprecedentedly large toll of the attacks of Sept. 11 is still so bruising for so many of us in this country.
This fragility should cause all who work in the life insurance business to reflect on the value of what they do. Isnt this fragility what underlies the entire concept of life insurance and what makes it so valuable? Isnt it the reason that people will pay for an intangible product they may never use, and indeed, often hope they will never have to use.
The fact is that people do innately recognize that the potential for tragedy is implicit in life. And along with this recognition comes the awareness that someone in the unexpectedly taken persons life is likely to be devastated by the vacuum that remains. In this sense, life insurance is like a balm that allows those left behind to grieve and mend and establish continuity in their own lives.
What a tragedy like the South Asian tsunamis brings out is our common humanity, that web of interdependency that too often lies submerged in our day-to-day struggles. If only we could remember it more consistently, instead of from one tragedy to the next!
Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, December 30, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.