This afternoon I went swimming with a friend. I hadn’t seen her for ages and was really looking forward to it. We had a good gossip and remarked at how busy the pool was that session. There were people selfishly ploughing up and down and almost into us.
I left the pool to get my goggles from my locker. When I got back I saw to my horror that my friend was struggling to keep afloat in the deep end.
There were about 15 people in the pool and they were all at the sides just gawping at her. It was awful. I was about to leap in myself, what were the lifeguards doing? I looked to my left and they were also standing there staring. It was like someone had paused a film. I announced “my friend needs help” and suddenly the play button was pressed again and the lifeguards leapt into action. I jumped into the pool too and hugged my friend.
She was really embarrassed and said she “felt stupid” for “making a scene”. But I said the onlookers should be the ones feeling embarrassed for just looking on instead of doing something. I hugged her, she was clearly shaken at the ordeal. She had been struggling for several minutes crying for help and no one did anything.
This seems to happen often now. No one comes to the rescue in an emergency for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they don’t want to get involved or they think someone else will. But sadly, it’s nothing new.
According to psychologists, the phenomenon is known as “bystander effect”, when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.
It first came to public attention in 1964, when Kitty Genovese was stabbed and raped in the streets of Queens, New York. Reports at the time claimed that there were 38 neighbours who heard her screams and that none of them did anything, even when the killer returned to finish the job. A more recent investigation suggests that there were perhaps only “6 or 7 witnesses”. One of them “did not want to be involved” as he was drunk, and so telephoned a neighbour asking them to contact the police.
Another more recent example is an assault that happened in New Zealand, where a pregnant lady was kicked and stamped on in front of 20 people. Only two witnesses called police and no one physically helped. But according to the psychologist quoted in that news report, once someone steps in, others tend to follow.
“It just needs someone to take the lead,” he said.
I had reacted a bit slowly as I expected lifeguards to do their job, but once I realised what was happening I am glad I did something.
The reason that witnesses don’t respond is because of confusion, fear and uncertainty. Perhaps they are not sure if it is their responsibility. It’s easier not to act. If it’s safer not to that is understandable. But out of 20 witnesses of the serious assault in New Zealand, just 10% reacted and called police.
Someone I was at school with, Hassan, was walking along the street when he saw an elderly lady wandering about, clearly lost and confused. Everyone else just walked past her, but Hassan, a doctor, couldn’t ignore her. He discovered that the lady had wandered out of her nursing home. He took her to hospital, as the nursing home insisted the lady was still in bed. He was hailed as a hero and he was. But this is something that we all should do. He may have saved her life.
There was the shocking neglect at Stafford Hospital, which included patients being so desperate for water that they were drinking from vases. Everyone thought it was someone else’s duty to ensure basic needs were met.
What today taught me is that I am a lady of reaction rather than inaction. In an emergency the difference between these two responses can mean life and death, if not for you then for someone else.
People have died when they could have been saved. If we don’t act we all have blood on our hands. So don’t just look the other way and don’t just stand there. Be the person to make a difference.