Sunday, April 28, 2013

This Month’s Biggest Disaster: Neglect

If you were to go by the U.S. news media, you could be forgiven if you thought the biggest disaster of the month was the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the explosion at the fertilizer factory in Texas, the floods in Illinois and neighboring states, or the China earthquake. But if you combine the lifestyle impact and loss of life in those four events, it does not come close to the effects of a factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh. By this afternoon, 362 dead bodies had been recovered from the building, and a similar number of people are still missing inside. Most of the people who worked in the building escaped within the first hours, but hundreds were taken to hospitals with injuries. The implications of the event have not gone unnoticed across the country, where today a general strike is underway as workers call for enforcement of workplace safety rules.

It may have become a political flash point in Bangladesh, but the level of neglect that led to this tragedy is shocking even from a distance. The building was built without a permit and with an inadequate design. As one wall started to come apart, factory operators defied an evacuation order. The building could easily have been remedied so that it could have stood solidly, at a cost far less than that of digging through the rubble in the five days since the collapse. In other words, for this disaster to happen, one thing after another had to go wrong and be ignored. To put this in perspective, people were not injured in the retail spaces in the same building because those managers and workers heeded the evacuation orders. In all, it is a sequence that probably couldn’t happen in a Western country or even a few kilometers away in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.

But it is only the scale of this disaster that makes it exceptional. The broad outlines of the story are repeated on a smaller scale every day. When people come to harm, it is more likely to be from neglect, or a basic lack of energy, than from the random exogenous events that we most fear. People rightly fear the effects of lightning on golf courses, but ten times as many people on golf courses fall from lifestyle-related illnesses — from illnesses and lifestyles that, in most cases, could easily be remedied if we were not so easily distracted by the thought that hoping for the best might be good enough.