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HomeOpinionCoronavirus, Chernobyl, Katrina no accident, were predicted but not averted

Coronavirus, Chernobyl, Katrina no accident, were predicted but not averted

US agency CDC had predicted COVID-19. Ebola, SARs were nature’s alarm bells. Yet, human greed and narrow parochial goals suppressed those warnings.

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All crises, including the current pandemic, are never “accidents”. Accidents themselves don’t cause death and damage. It is inaction by those responsible for protective measures that do. Disasters are the result of the interplay between complex, interdependent interactions of nature, technology, human and organisational behaviours and primarily — leadership failures.

On 25 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in what was to become the costliest natural disaster in the US, killing over 12,000 people and causing damages worth up to $200 billion. Water and debris inundated the city for weeks, destroying transport and communication facilities and leaving tens of thousands of residents stranded without access to food, water or evacuation. Most of the deaths and destruction was because of fatal flaws in the flood protection system of the city.

But Katrina was no surprise.

Dozens of studies, articles, programmes and reports by reputed establishments like National Geographic, Scientific American, New Orleans Times, PBS Frontline had painted chilling scenarios of a catastrophe waiting to happen. The National Geographic article predicted the damage just ten months before with uncanny accuracy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had also warned that New Orleans was woefully unprepared for a Class 3 storm.

Unbelievably, there were several warning signs given by nature before Katrina. Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and finally a massive rainstorm in 1995 which left no doubt that New Orleans was unprepared for such disasters.

Yet, despite these warnings, decision-makers in several government establishments, including the army and the White House, miscalculated the chances of occurrence and damage potential of such a calamity.

Also read: Why Wuhan coronavirus crisis isn’t China’s Chernobyl

As Marc Gerstein points out in his book “Flirting with Disasters” there are several common threads in virtually all disasters ranging from Katrina, Chernobyl, Space Shuttle Challenger’s crash to organisational collapses like Enron.

First is the organisational or national culture which ‘denies’ bad news and actively punishes messengers who point it out, disincentivising others from voicing warning signs of impending disasters. Doctors and experts in China and other countries, who gave constant warnings about Corona’s lethality were pilloried, labelled as alarmists, ostracised & punished.

In the case of Chernobyl, there was prolonged denial at every level because of political fear even after it was amply clear that the nuclear reactor had exploded and was spewing lethal radioactivity. Gorbachev was not informed about the true extent of the damage until very late, and even then, the Soviet high command’s focus was on containing the news from the world, much like the Chinese in the current pandemic. The state did not even inform the people around Chernobyl who continued to stay in its vicinity and consume contaminated food for days after the accident. In disasters, every minute of denial and delay results in thousands of lives.

Second is pressure from leaders to achieve impossible and grandiose goals and severe penalties for failure. The Challenger Space shuttle launch was compromised amongst other reasons because NASA turned a blind eye to the lower performance of ‘O Rings’ — the sealing rings that caused the explosion, so as not to lose military funding or delay the launch because it was an ‘achievement’ to be mentioned in President Reagan’s presidential address on the very day of the launch.

The third is a focus on profitability or personal glory, at the cost of turning a blind eye to every danger. Enron’s Kenneth Lay, Jeffery Skilling and more recently Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, actively perpetrated fraud for years to increase market cap and personal wealth. Theranos, a blood-testing company, endangered lives of thousands of patients, giving them faulty results because their technology neither worked nor was approved by the FDA. The Theranos board included two former secretaries of state — George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defence, William Perry, Gen James Matthis, two former senators and former CEO of Wells Fargo and Bechtel — all of whom stood to benefit from Theranos’s success. And Elizabeth continued the deception right under their experienced noses until caught by Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who was hounded and intimidated throughout his investigation by one of the most powerful law firms in the US — which too stood to benefit from Theranos’s increasing valuation.

The fourth reason is design and systems failure. While it is easy to blame an individual — and that blame may be justified — attributing every accident to ‘pilot error’ absolves the deep-rooted design compromises and management’s negligence or active connivance. Causations are difficult to assign in complex systems, but systemic methods to amplify ‘weak signals’ and dissent from internal ‘rebels’ are often the only way to get those warning signals. George Shultz’s grandson worked for Theranos and was a strident whistleblower, but Shultz chose to believe Elizabeth, the CEO, rather than his grandson because of confirmation bias. Several leaders treat dissent as disloyalty and reward obeisance, thus wilfully suppressing those early warning signals.

And the last reason is not paying heed to reports and recommendations of experts’ teams commissioned or hired expressly for those purposes. There are examples of several such committee reports in cases like Katrina, Kargil war or police reforms etc that are ignored by decision-makers. For instance, in 2007, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, had war-gamed the scenario of pandemic breakouts. They had simulated policy options of whether inbound passengers should be screened in existing airports or the flights to be diverted to special screening facilities — 13 years ago! Including the repercussions that while diverting flights would be a more cautious approach, doing so could cause panic and have global financial implications. Going by the US response, it seems those simulations weren’t heeded.

Also read: Needs are often greater long after a disaster. That’s when you can best help

At this point, there should be no delusion that we are facing what is arguably the biggest challenge of our generation. Like Katrina, there were several warnings to Covid-19. World influencers with resources like Bill Gates had spelt this out, agencies like CDC had predicted it. Climate change and animal rights advocates had campaigned for years. The Spanish Flu, Ebola, SARs and several local outbreaks were nature’s warnings. Yet, human greed, narrow parochial goals and in some cases, outright personal aggrandisement suppressed those warnings.

National and corporate decision-makers who were rapaciously plundering resources belonging to future generations had insulated themselves from the suffering of others. Now misery is democratised with almost every individual in the world, including the rich and powerful being damaged directly or indirectly. Perhaps there is some poetic justice in the Corona sparing future generations and the flora and fauna.

While the pandemic itself will eventually pass, its aftermath will ravage economic, political and social structures, relationships between nations, national and personal plans for years if not decades. If the decision-makers — or whoever is left of them — do not pay heed to this apocalyptic warning and fundamentally alter our approach and governance structures, perhaps the next crisis will be existential for humankind and deservedly so.

The author is former CEO NATGRID and president, Risk & Security Reliance Industries. Views are personal.

This article was first published on Medium.

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  1. BEWARE INDIA. Unlike other viruses which are light and can fly in dust particles for a long distance, this Corona type is 1) HEAVY, 2) AGGRESSIVE 3)QUICK REACTIVE & LONGER LASTING, 4) CANNOT SURVIVE IN HEAT, SUNLIGHT, ACIDIC PROPERTIES 5) SPREADS EASILY IN CONGESTED, CONTACT AREAS, CROWDS 6) INCUBATES, SHOWS SIGNS WITHIN 14 DAYS. 7) SURVIVES AND FEEDS ON HUMAN CELLS. 8) INTELLIGENT 9) LOVES TOUCH MANIACS. Because it is 1)HEAVY, it CAN FLY to 2 Ft. Hence, keep a 3 Ft distance from conversing people’s mouth, sneeze, cough drops throw-ups. 2) AGGRESSIVE. Can cause heavy life tolls if not circumvented as in Italy. 3) QUICK REACTIVE &LONGER LASTING. Can stay on a metallic surface for 16 hours, wood 6 hrs, human surface for less than an Hr, but least on copper surfaces. So wash hands every Hr. 4) CANNOT SURVIVE IN HEAT, SUNLIGHT, ACIDIC PROPERTIES Drink warm lemon water. Avoid AC, cold drinks, cold weather conditions. Survives for 6 Hr in throat, larynx. Therefore, gurgle every Hr with salty, warm water or medically prescribed liquid. Expose body, clothes, rooms by drawing curtains to sunlight. Virus likes alkaline body conditions. The virus dies in stomach or alimentary tract acidic condition. 5) SPREADS EASILY IN CONGESTED, CONTACT AREAS, CROWDS. Avoid crowded areas as hospitals, shops, supermarkets or do so with utmost care and consideration. Bread, vegetables etc of daily usage is a calamity. You never know. once in house leave shoes slippers, slops outside before entering house. Use soap to wash hands. Wipe contact surfaces in house with detergent, alcohol etc. Expose clothes in sunlight. 7) SURVIVES AND FEEDS ON HUMAN CELLS, LOVES TOUCH MANIACS. Orifices like mouth, nose, eyes are hot beds. Avoid touching these parts. And wash hands often. The throat and larynx are colder than other body parts and therefore more exposed. Use thermogenesis or other medicinal hot water inhalations to clear such areas. . 8) INTELLIGENT Chooses old, diseased, weak antibodies to invade body system. Avoid visiting such patients or people. Use phone instead to converse with them, but make sure they are safe and taken care of. Virus can wait for at least 3 months or more to attack. Hence, the need for 3 months nation isolation. Mask is needed in doubtful conditions and situations. But they can as well as burqas can become hotbeds of viral self -infestation. There is always hope. Researchers are working hard to come out with a vaccine. In the meantime most people will have had the fever and survived with stronger antibodies to fight the virus.

  2. “National and corporate decision-makers who were rapaciously plundering resources belonging to future generations”. What does it mean? If resource is needed today and is available, should it not be exploited for current use and left untouched for an unknown future generation? Same nonsensical ideas are peddled in India by naxal supporters who claim that natural resources such as coal, iron ore belonging to “adivasis” is being exploited by capitalists. The question is, if a resource is available, what is to be done with it?

    The so-called article by Raghu Raman is a warning to the people of India to stay on guard against infiltration of media and other broadcast mediums by left extremists who continue to fancifully believe that tilling the land with bullocks is the ideal way of life.

  3. Poor hypothesis, and poor writing…. What is the purpose of this article? The author seems to be under the impression that he can write just anything, draw any inference, and that the readers would lap up.

    • The hypotheses is that the warnings are not headed to by governments in time. This is natural consider that the re are probably hundreds of such therioes evry day by the analysts and the government CANNOT ACT IN EACH CASE.
      The author is offering his opinion and for sure it is lapped up because it’s plausible

    • “What is the point of this article?”
      The Point is: Ignore-ance of existential threats due to “dark side” human nature traits- avarice & greed, self-aggrandizement, “magical-thinking” over science- INVARIABLY RESULTS IN DISASTER given enough time- and enough rope to hang an entire species- homo-sapien.

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