Andrew Vine: Another tragedy looms in Africa, but will the world act?

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IT WAS one of those moments when the world seemed to stop, its people shocked into silent disbelief by the horror unfolding before their eyes.

On Thursday, it will be exactly 30 years since the tragedy of the Ethiopian famine was revealed by a BBC news report which those who saw it can never forget, nor the words that accompanied the footage.

“Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem it lights up a Biblical famine, now, in the 20th century.”

The words were those of reporter Michael Buerk. They would be repeated often during that autumn of 1984, as would the pictures they accompanied, of a desolate plain full to the horizon of starving, desperate people dying in the merciless heat of a land ravaged by drought.

There was no hyperbole in what he said. The scale of the suffering was so vast that it truly did appear Biblical.

If the unfolding tragedy of Ethiopia stunned the world into a moment of stillness, it also served to galvanise it, thanks to a timely prod from the combative rock star Bob Geldof, into one of the great popular movements of our times.

The charity single Do They Know it’s Christmas, released a little over a month after Buerk’s report aired, raised more than £12m for famine relief, and the huge Live Aid concert at Wembley the following summer raised millions more.

They were just the high-profile events. All over the country, people did what they could to help, collecting money and sending donations to the relief effort.

The mid-80s were a time of sometimes anguished debate over whether Britain had lost its soul to rampant materialism and selfishness. The country was far from at ease with itself, the twin symbols of that uncertain year the bitter and sometimes violent miners’ strike and the IRA attempt to murder the Government in the Brighton bombing.

But for a moment, there could be no question that our innate generosity and compassion were intact. Amid violence on the streets of mining communities and murder at a seaside hotel, the will to help Ethiopia was heartening.

Where are the charity singles and fund-raising concerts now that another tragedy threatens to engulf the people of Africa? Or the popular will to do something about it?

If there was a Biblical dimension to the Ethiopian famine, so there is something of the Old Testament about the suffering of the thousands whose lives have already been claimed by the Ebola epidemic.

Thirty years on from a mass movement to help a stricken region of Africa, there are no signs that the spread of the most fearsome disease since Aids is prompting a similar outpouring of compassion for its victims and the people living in terror of contracting it.

Raising money for food, water and shelter for people struck by famine is altogether more straightforward than providing aid for a population in the grip of a killer disease, but even so the plight of the countries affected by Ebola demands help. If the warnings of economic collapse as the disease tightens its grip come true, entire populations could be left starving. Food and shelter on a scale undreamed of by the millions who bought a charity single or rattled a collecting tin all those years ago might yet be required.

It was appropriate enough that the now Sir Bob Geldof had words of criticism last week for the slowness of the response to the epidemic. The moral authority that the events of 30 years ago gave him makes him an unsettling voice of conscience.

It is possible that there are several factors at work that account for the lack of a mass movement to help the people of Africa. The first is a feeling of exhausted helplessness.

War and brutality in Syria and Iraq, have arguably produced a feeling that however much is done to aid suffering people, another crisis arises as one is addressed. Our bruising involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan has also produced a more insular mentality than that of 30 years ago,.

And, of course, there is the simple human trait of not wanting to think about Ebola, the hope that it will somehow just go away, even though the tentacles of the epidemic have already reached into Europe and the United States.

A mass movement to aid the stricken countries of West Africa may yet emerge, as might a figure to rival Geldof in urging the world to action. But there’s no indication of it, even though the events of 30 years ago remind us how potent the will to help can be.