Remembering Bhopal

8 Aug

The statistics are still shocking, 25 years on from the world's worst ever industrial accident – the gas leak at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India. According to Mick Brown's detailed and moving account in the Telegraph Magazine 'exact numbers are unknown, but most estimates agree that about 8,000 people died from poisoning within 72 hours of the gas leaking into the air. An Amnesty International report published in 2004 concluded that a further 15,000 people had died in the years afterwards as a direct result of long-term gas-related effects, and that 10,000 people continued to suffer from chronic… illnesses.'

Compare this with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, 'estimated to have caused 57 direct deaths, with some 4,000 additional deaths from cancer among the… most highly exposed people.'

Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), Zeebrugge / Townsend Thoresen (1987), Lockerbie / Pan Am (1988), Kegworth / British Midland (1989) – note how many of the disaster scenarios remembered (and used as case studies) today date back to the 1980s. They're highly memorable to those of my generation – but I have to keep reminding myself that most current students weren't yet born then.

2 Responses to “Remembering Bhopal”

  1. Heather Yaxley 10/08/2009 at 10:27 am #

    It is interesting that so many of these major disasters happened within a short while of each other – two other textbook classics were also in the 1980s (Tylenol 1982 and Exxon Valdez 1989).
    Do you think these are the ones that are most commonly referenced because the issue of crisis management was emerging prominently then? Or is it something to do with the nature of media at that time? Or public expectations beginning to change with environmental and other activist groups becoming more powerful and media savvy?
    I wonder if it would be helpful to have more of that historical context to make the examples more relevant to young Uni students. Of course, there are always contemporary scenarios that can be used so that students can track them emerging, especially through online and social media today.
    Which means we have to be really clear about what the learning points we are trying to draw out from the 1980s.
    Sadly, also, the Bhopal anniversary is a reminder as so often with such disasters, it is decades later when the real lessons for businesses and PR practitioners remain to be drawn. However, the PR case study texts tend to stop after the immediate handling of the crisis.

  2. Richard Bailey 10/08/2009 at 10:44 am #

    Thanks for adding Tylenol and Exxon Valdez to my list, Heather.
    I think we tend to use examples from the 1980s because, as you say, the area was young and Tylenol in particular has become the defining crisis management case.
    I also think that early disasters are more memorable (and shocking) than later ones, so these tend to be the cases we (lecturers, book authors) use.
    (Remember, remember the fifth of November: but why? The Gunpowder Plot was stopped before the fuse was lit – so it’s nothing compared to many more recent examples of ‘terrorism’.)
    Perhaps you’re right, too, that the less crowded media environment makes for simpler analysis of actions and reactions.
    Could it even be that regulation and responsibility have minimised the number of cases of negligence? There’s been nothing to compare with Thalidomide in almost 50 years.

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