We can never be completely free from risk

But we must ever be in a state of maximum readiness

By Dr R Neeerunjun Gopee

In the matter of ‘Risk Reduction and Preparedness’ global experience shows that we can only go so far, but depending on where and who we are in the world, we can gear ourselves substantially to face calamities. As we have done in Mauritius about cyclones: those of us who remember the desolation of the landscape after the passage of cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960 will surely accept that never again after them have we had anything like that kind of damage to our human habitats. In fact, nowadays our response at the approach of a cyclone is so well established that, with practically all constructions being in brick and cement, and sectorwise emergency measures in place – in health for example – being effective, there is neither as much damage nor are there so many casualties. The few deaths we have had to deplore in recent years have been caused mostly by individual negligence rather that due to the cyclone per se.

A simple illustration one can give about risk is the pedestrian crossing and traffic lights: one may take all the precautions and follow the rules strictly, but we do know about defaulters going through the red lights and pedestrians being knocked down at the crossing. This shows that we can only minimize risk, never eliminate it. Similarly, in medicine, despite doing everything according to norms, we can still get complications which it is beyond our control to either anticipate or avert; such is the nature of biological material – which is what we are in physical terms.

The same reasoning applies where other disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, massive floods, tsunamis and so on are concerned. There is no country or continent that has been spared of one or other of these, sometimes more than one simultaneously or in succession, as we have been seeing during the past several years.

The one that perhaps caused the greatest consternation was the tsunami in 2004 that ravaged Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, and Thailand killing at least 225,000 people, including thousands of tourists vacationing who were reported dead or missing. The immediate challenges were lack of food, clean water, and medical treatment, combined with the enormous task faced by relief workers trying to get supplies into some remote areas. But there was also long-term severe environmental damage to villages, tourist resorts, farmland, and fishing grounds, and thus to livelihoods as well. The other major tsunami hit Japan in 2011, but simultaneously an earthquake led to damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant. Again, thousands were killed and whole areas had to be evacuated. There was also the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of massive flooding and landslides that hit the Indian state of Uttarakhand two years later, which engulfed whole villages. Every single year since there have been similar catastrophes everywhere.

Japan, for example, is well prepared to face earthquakes, because of its experience with them, and the expertise it developed as a result to cope with future ones, consisting in particular of designing buildings that are more earthquake-resistant and raising awareness among its population of the immediate steps to follow when an earthquake strikes – but how can one be prepared for both earthquake and tsunami happening at the same time?

In Europe there have been practically uncontrollable wildfires in Spain, Portugal and Greece. In the US, one storm after another has swept through Florida, Texas and other southern states – as if there was not enough that the country was already battling: namely the raging wildfires in Northern California which are still spreading despite the valiant efforts of hundreds of intrepid firefighters. They have led to the burning down of several townships, and loss of several lives as well. But worse is the fate of those who have helplessly watched their houses go up in flames in front of their very eyes, and are now desperate as to where to go and how to start their lives all over again.

A very disturbing piece of news to me is that the fires have reached the sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada. And at great risk is the world’s oldest (about 2500 years) tree, the General Sherman which stands at over 80 metres and has a base diameter of 36 feet, which I had the occasion to visit many years ago, and even have a picture taken, standing in front of it and looking so awesomely puny! Ever since I heard the news a few days ago I have been praying that it doesn’t burn down. It and others in the vicinity have been wrapped in special silver foil which hopefully will protect them.

This goes to show that when such monumental catastrophes strike, even advanced nations like the US and Japan can be caught unprepared or their preparedness levels fall short of capacity to cope in the immediate aftermath.

And of course, the greatest global tsunami that we have been struggling with for over eighteen months now is the Covid-19 pandemic. The massive impact that it has had and is still having on lives and livelihoods through its disruptions of every single aspect of the networks that sustain us – education, family, finance, industry, supply chains and you name it – is there for all of us not only to see. We have also been experiencing its consequences, and there is no end in sight. Not only because there are so many uncertainties and controversies associated with it – related to treatment and control strategies, the responses of governments, vaccine coverage and politics to name but a few – but also because people are fed up with the forced lockdowns and isolations, and are exposing themselves to risk by not strictly observing the recommended preventive measures.

The point is that, however prepared one can be, we cannot anticipate all contingencies. Analysts have come to the conclusion that what matters most, besides the state of preparedness, is the capacity of a country to cope afterwards. And that depends not only on technical competencies, but a host of other factors such as the political and administrative structure of the country, political and social stability that ensure robust governance structures, and also cultural factors, amongst other things.

It would appear therefore that, though more developed and richer countries can be better prepared to cope more effectively with catastrophes, none is altogether safe from them. The bottom line is that we can never be completely free from risk, but we must ever be in a state of maximum readiness so as to limit eventual damage. And this is quite possible. It’s neither the end of days nor the apocalypse, it’s just the way that nature is – and we tend to forget that we are part of that same nature, and therefore must enjoy or endure with it.

As Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayanda says, in nature there is neither good nor bad: there are only consequences. Which we have no choice but to confront to the best of our ability.

* Published in print edition on 21 September 2021

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