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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Let’s face it, when it first began it was fun. Celebrities in the United States of American sprinkled stardust on a worthy cause by dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in support ALS research. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder which severely compromises nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

There is neither treatment nor cure for this ailment that slowly robs the victim of life. The best that medicine can offer is therapy to manage the associated complications. Feeling down after having read that? Well this is precisely why the “ice bucket challenge” was so extraordinarily effective. ALS can be heavy subject to digest. If individuals aren’t directly affected by this fatal disease they’d just as soon not burden themselves with worry about it. 

Dumping a bucket of ice water onto your head is a playfully stupid way of showing solidarity with sufferers of this terminal condition and advocating increased awareness and fund-raising for research.

The way it is (or was, it seems the craze has petered out) supposed to work is a challenge is issued to someone to take the icy bath, if the challenge is not fulfilled within 24 hours the “nominee” must then make a charitable donation in the name of ALS. If the challenge is accepted, the sufficiently chilled participant passes it on to other friends or relatives.

Well the trend went viral. Videos of Hollywood celebrities descending from Olympus to partake in a decidedly “human” activity triggered the unwashed masses (now ice-washed) to pass the baton. 

For every video, there was corresponding criticism. Many people opined that it was dreadful to be wasting so much water given the drought in California and the scarcity of this precious resource on the African continent. It is unlikely that a couple thousand buckets of water would really have made much difference to California’s burgeoning dust-bowl future. That ice water, had it not been wasted, wouldn’t have been re routed to Africa to slake the thirsts of parched Bedouin in the Sahel. 

Criticisms aside, the campaign has been extraordinarily successful. In fact, the ALS association in the United States has a peculiar problem; they aren’t quite sure what to do with the 100 million dollars raised so far. As the interweb craze spread, it was only a matter of time that Trinis would find themselves doing what is a particular specialty of ours, mimicry. 

It began first with our own pseudo celebrities taking up the challenge and then ordinary folks following, as they are wont to do, to “raise awareness” for ALS. Thus began frenzied online trawling for “likes” and other virtual acknowledgements. 

The local leg of the campaign began to sour (at least in my mind) very rapidly when some major companies saw the opportunity for free public relations and jumped right in. Some of them would have done well to douse their heads with buckets of shame, given the paltry support (if any at all) they have begrudgingly bestowed on perennially cap-in-hand NGOs. 

Suddenly everyone in Trinidad wanted to support ALS research, even though just one month ago, I suspect very few people had ever heard of it. Socasonian Bunji Garlin was excoriated online for “throwing shade” on ice bucket poseurs. Mr Garlin questioned how many Trinis were actually donating to the cause adding that “no one could tell him where to go and donate.”

This ignited moral outrage, fuelled by a highly combustible ignorance of what he was suggesting. The performer wasn’t saying he wouldn’t donate because he knows nothing about the cause, he was simply suggesting that many citizens are caught up in a fad and have no real interest in it.

It is a point that cannot be ignored; a few years ago a well known local personality began a highly publicised fund-raising drive. This initiative attracted pledges of support amounting to almost half a million dollars. When the glitter of the public campaign settled, very few of those pledges were honoured. Several well-established companies used the opportunity to build public relations capital without actually contributing a cent to the cause. 

Trini bandwaggonists know all too well that if you can appear to be doing something charitable that’s good enough. It was encouraging to see at least a few people adapting the ice bucket challenge to a local organisation, the Down Syndrome Family Network. It would be interesting to see how that translated into dollars and cents. There are countless groups out there; Rainbow Rescue, The Autistic Society of T&T, The Cancer Society all of which need constant, year-round support. 

These are just a few of the organisations which could benefit tremendously from the sort of passion and apparent magnanimity enthusiastically displayed over the past month by Trinis in response to an imported viral campaign. Dumping buckets and pots of ice water on your heads for ALS research can be well intentioned. Equally important are all of the poorly funded associations here at home who don’t even have a pot to…well you get the point.


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