Home >Opinion >Columns >Responses to natural and man-made disasters differ

The cause of the covid pandemic had been assumed to be natural. But US President Joe Biden recently ordered American intelligence agencies to investigate the question of its origin. If the report they submit does not comprehensively rule out the lab-leak hypothesis, the pandemic could witness a mutation of a different kind. The source of Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid, could mutate in our understanding from ‘natural’ to possibly ‘man-made’, a momentous shift.

The world has seen many disasters. They can broadly be classified either as natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and floods, or man-made ones like wars, genocides, oil spills, nuclear accidents and factory explosions. Although health scares like HIV or Ebola are spread through human interaction, their origin has always been attributed to a natural source. The root cause of a major disaster switching suddenly from a natural phenomenon to human agency is quite unheard of.

Disasters are usually viewed as a collective experience. So how the community’s collective experience of a disaster changes if its root cause shifts in popular perception should be an important consideration for policymakers. In many countries, like India, more than 80% of the people are yet to be vaccinated. Will people’s willingness to get vaccinated or readiness to face a possible third wave change if the covid pandemic is seen as a man-made disaster? It’s a question worth exploration.

A 2014 paper in the journal Risk Analysis by Michael Siegrist and Bernadette Sutterlin suggests that people are generally angered and frustrated more by disasters that are caused by people than disasters that are natural. As a result, the researchers predicted that people would also find human-caused disasters more severe than natural ones. For example, one study compared the ratings assigned by a survey’s respondents to a chemical plant explosion that released sulphur dioxide and killed 15 people with a volcano that released the same gas and took exactly the same number of lives. Participants felt the plant explosion was more severe than the volcano. A similar result was obtained for a forest fire that was caused either by someone or a lightning strike.

Natural disasters tend to invoke a feeling of lack of control over natural forces, and are expected to be uncontrollable. So the damage done by a natural disaster is seen as inevitable and it is a bit easier for people to reconcile to those losses. On the other hand, man-made disasters are assumed to be preventable. This perception of control one has over man-made disaster makes it hard to accept the losses it creates. So emotional closure on a man-made disaster is harder to arrive at. “We think that nature is out of our control—it’s not malicious, it’s not profiting from us, we just have to bear with it," says Paul Slovic, a pioneer in risk perception psychology and a professor at the University of Oregon. “But if it’s a chemical company that’s exposing us to some slight increase of risk of cancer, we are not tolerant of that."

Man-made disasters are emotionally very combustible, because in all such events, there is always a ‘devil’, someone who started it. The concept of a ‘devil’ has been used very effectively by organized religions to influence the behaviour of followers. If the public narrative of covid’s origin moves from a natural to a man-made cause, there would be the possibility of a ‘devil’ being created. In a war situation, many activities are reframed as exercises to protect one’s motherland from the enemy. Similarly, it is possible to reframe public programmes like a vaccination drive as an effort to protect an in-group from a diabolical entity. But this strategy could also backfire. Covid pandemic management could become a distinctly political process, where various players involved are forced to take sides. In an article, ‘Man-made disaster and development’ in International Social Work, Scott Harding reminds us that, typically, the world community rallies far more to provide material and other support to victims of a natural catastrophe, whereas, a form of apathy tends to set in during a crises caused by human-made disasters.

A man-made cause being attributed to the pandemic could also undo some of the excellent efforts of various experts who came together to develop a vaccine in record time. If the man-made covid story gains traction, unfounded suspicions that various pharmaceutical companies could create vaccines so quickly only because of virus foreknowledge could also get fanned, although there’s no evidence of this whatsoever.

The possible shift of the pandemic’s root cause towards a laboratory leak could impact the very future of virology as a field of research and academic knowledge. The lab-leak story could do to the discipline what the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island accidents, involving radiation spills, did to the field of nuclear science. It could increase suspicions about various research projects being done in laboratories across the world and an irrational fear could develop around virology. On the other hand, a natural-cause story of the pandemic could boost future research investment in this field.

So far, the principal narrative of the pandemic has been that a freak occurrence of nature led to it, but talk of it possibly being traced to a laboratory mishap is getting louder. Such a mutation of the covid narrative could prove no less significant than mutations of the virus itself.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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