Across Europe, Wednesday was a day of mourning for the victims of the tsunami disaster in south-east Asia. As sirens sounded across the country, Czechs observed three minutes of silence as a mark of respect for the dead. A wave of public sympathy for the plight of the afflicted region has resulted in the biggest public collection since the devastating floods of 2002 which left thousands of people in central Europe homeless.
Money has been pouring into the accounts set up by aid organizations and up until yesterday it seemed that Czech citizens - who have so far collected 60 million crowns, that's over 2 million US dollars, for the devastated region - would donate more than their government. Whether it was simply dragging its feet or was shamed into action, on Tuesday the Cabinet finally rose to the occasion announcing its readiness to allocate 15 million crowns, around 750,000 dollars, in humanitarian aid to the devastated region and earmark another 200 million crowns to help rebuild the stricken area. Eight million crowns have already been spent on emergency aid to the area, to buy clean water and medicaments. Next in line is the reconstruction of hospitals and schools as well as housing for the millions who have been left homeless.
The enormity of the tragedy and public solidarity with the victims have also highlighted a disturbing aspect of the humanitarian aid process here in the Czech Republic - the fact that unlike in Western Europe, the Czech state, banks and mobile phone operators were making money from every donation made, through charges and VAT. Following pressure from non-governmental aid organizations, the government announced on Tuesday that the money collected in VAT taxes from mobile phone text message donations would be returned to charity funds rather than filling state coffers. Mobile operators followed suit, promising to either cancel their fees for charity SMS messages or donate them to the given charity. For the time being only banks have refrained from changing their policy - and are still "enriching themselves on people's desire to help" as the country's leading business paper Hospodarske noviny puts it, noting that two banks in Germany which attempted to do the same bowed to public pressure within hours. Overall, the relief effort has shown that while the nation's heart is in the right place, institutions still had an important lesson to learn in ethics.
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