A devastating explosion of ammonium-nitrate killed at least 135 people, injured thousands and destroyed a large part of Beirut, Lebanon. The Lebanese are understandably horrified, shocked and angered by the negligence of a government that allowed a lethal condition to exist in their major port city, 100 yards from residential areas for as long as seven years in spite of repeated warnings.
Lebanon has historical problems. It is sandwiched between Israel and Syria and serves both as buffer and punching bag for local powers. The government suffers from corruption (ranked number 137 of 198 in the World Corruption Index for 2019). The Lebanese economy was a shambles before the explosion. They were in a recession and inflation was raging. Now, the county’s main port is unusable. This disaster emphasizes their own failures to control warring militias, reject outside interference in their politics, help the economy and protect residents. Granted that they had a low bar but their government still failed to clear it.
Given the situation, it is horrible but not surprising that 2,750 tons of an explosive sat in a warehouse on the dock in Beirut for seven years, each day increasing the probability of a disaster, with the government blithely ignoring or intentionally overlooking the monster in their midst.
In contrast to Lebanon, the United States had a strong economy. Our immediate neighbors are not a threat. Interference in our politics is probably greater from internal sources than foreign powers although there is most certainly also foreign interference. We have been ranked reasonably well in the corruption index. We are rich as a country. We have the world’s strongest military and are capable of defending ourselves from aggressors.
Yet in the U. S., almost 160,000 people have died from covid-19 in six months. We have about 5 million confirmed cases and many more unconfirmed. We lead the world in deaths and cases of covid. We are 19th highest in per capita deaths.
Worldwide experience in epidemiology has led to a broad understanding of how diseases spread. The details vary from disease to disease. The most significant factors in epidemic spreads are the rate of reproduction and the duration of the infectious period. The diseases then spread as the probability that a random person will come in contact with an infectious person and the likelihood that they will have a sufficient exposure to transmit the disease. The well understood plan then is to begin as early as you know there is a potential epidemic/pandemic, keep people apart from one another and employ methods to reduce the spread of the pathogen such as masks, hand washing. We do contact tracing to isolate exposed individuals and testing to identify them.
We took none of these steps on a national level and established no means of coordination so that necessary resources could be moved to the highest priority places.
Why did we not pursue what most other nations did but also what the experts have known for close to a century is the safest course of action?
The disease, deaths and disruption in the US from the pandemic are the result of complex factors but it is undeniable that government incompetence and neglect of basic facts have endangered our security, educational system, the economy and the ability of the economy to recover. The Associated Press found documents that “ underscore the corruption, negligence and incompetence of Lebanon’s long ruling political oligarchy, and its failure to provide its people with basic needs, including security”.
We are not Lebanon. The critical question is whether it makes any difference when the chips are down?