What the Beirut blast tells us about fragility and risk

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Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

Like many people, I spent much of yesterday evening and this morning slack-jawed at footage of the devastation in Beirut, caused by a monumental explosion at the Lebanese capital’s port.

Early indications are that 2,750 metric tons of poorly-secured ammonium nitrate, which had been sitting in a warehouse for six years, somehow ignited.

At the time of writing, the death toll is at least 100–given how the blast flattened a wide area around the port (and carved a sizeable chunk out of the port’s landscape) it is hard to imagine the final count not being many times that. At least three hospitals were destroyed as the shockwave tore through neighborhoods; over 200,000 people are now homeless. Lebanon’s primary wheat stores and the country’s main entry point for imports are gone.

“For someone like me, who lived through 15 years of war, it’s incredible to see that yesterday’s explosion destroyed the city worse than the war. The effect of the explosion can be only compared to that of a nuclear bomb,” says Sr. Hanan Youssef, of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who run a clinic in Beirut’s Roueissat neighborhood.

“The port is the only gateway for imported goods into the country. Lebanon is highly dependent on imports, over 80{4bae5313c1ffa697ce99995897f7847f1ebf3bca0fb7c37396bb602eb24323d3} of goods are imported. This is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Food insecurity is huge now.”

This is clearly an enormous tragedy, but what, you might ask, does it have to do with business and the rest of the world’s economies?

Apologies for the negativity, but I find it unavoidable in this case: The blast was a grim reminder that just because things are going really badly, that does not mean they cannot get substantially worse.

Lebanon was already under deep stress before this tragedy struck. Its government was mired in dysfunction and protests were on the rise; its economy was in tatters and its currency in freefall. Power outages were the norm–indeed, a lack of electricity hampered the overnight rescue efforts. And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic bit Lebanon just as it did other countries.

Then the Beirut blast happened—a hammer blow to a country already on its knees.

COVID-19 has taken many societies to what feels like breaking point, but other tragedies will strike while the pandemic rolls on. The U.S., for example, would be extremely lucky if it emerged relatively unscathed from what looks set to be an above-average hurricane season this year. How do you evacuate thousands of people while also trying to maintain social distancing in the context of a pandemic? Hopefully someone is figuring that out.

Everything is extra-fragile now and we all need to take heightened risk into account, to the extent that we can. This awful year still has a long way to go, so be alert for unknown unknowns.

More news below. And please do consider donating to the Lebanese Red Cross, the Good Shepherd International Foundation, or other organizations doing crucial work in Lebanon at this time.

David Meyer

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