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In Russia, safety comes cheap

Every time Russia experiences a human catastrophe, the issue of the state’s responsibility is raised for a reason. 

Kemerovo's Winter Cherry shopping centre, which caught fire on 25 March, killing 64 people. (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared on Republic. We translate and republish it here with their permission. 

The fire in the Winter Cherry shopping centre in Kemerovo is shocking. Sixty four people are dead, many children are among them.

This is another tragedy — which has happened whether due to negligence or corruption — and it forces us to think about why we have to experience these tragedies year after year without being able to do anything about them. In 2017, there were 17 fires in shopping malls and markets in Russia. In many cases, there were violations of fire safety regulations. After a fire at the Moscow Rio shopping centre in July 2017, people stated that they, just like in Kemerovo, were forgotten in the cinema; security didn’t know how to evacuate visitors. Back then, nobody died, though 18 people were injured.

Fires happen everywhere. Not a single property owner, nor company, nor state can guarantee that they won’t happen. But some people manage to keep the numbers of casualties down, and others don’t. It’s a sad fact: in recent decades, it’s only fires in shopping centres in the developing world that end in the deaths of large numbers of people.

The tragedy of the two-storey Ycuá Bolaños shopping centre fire in 2001, where nearly 400 people (and 500 people injured) were injured in Asunción, Paraguay. The large number of victims was explained in reference to the greed of the mall’s owners: security guards closed off exits in order to stop people fleeing from the fire from carrying off goods.

In 2014, a two-storey shopping centre in Lahore went up in flames. There was no fire safety system, and the majority of the 14 people who died choked on smoke as they tried to find their way to the one exit from the building.

It’s far from difficult to install and calibrate fire-prevention systems in the 21st century. Why is it that developed states can do this, but others can’t?

In December 2017, a fire started in a large shopping centre in Davao City, Philippines, in which 38 people died. Nearly all of them were employees of one company based on the top floor of the centre — the fire prevented them from getting to the stairs. A security guard died in the fire too, he had helped over 700 people get out of the building.

These kinds of fires, with dozens of casualties, have happened in shopping centres in China and Peru.

In Europe, the last fire of this kind in a shopping centre happened in Brussels in 1967, when the L’Innovation mall caught fire, killing 322 people. The building, built at the start of the 20th century, was not equipped with a fire-prevention system. There were speculations that, in the context of the Vietnam War, an anti-American left-wing group was behind it.

In Japan, the last large-scale fire at a mall happened in 1973. Since then, buildings are equipped with external fire escapes.

In America, the homeland of shopping malls, there haven’t been many fires with high casualty rates at shopping centres, though there have been fires at hotels, nightclubs, hospitals and schools. After several tragedies (for instance, the fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre в 1903), new safety mechanisms were introduced: signs pointing to fire escapes were installed, automatic fire-prevention systems, evacuation schemes, new demands to building materials and much else.

It’s far from difficult to install and calibrate fire-prevention systems in the 21st century. Why is it that developed states can do this, but others can’t? There’s at least reasons: outdated infrastructure; extreme levels of corruption that allows the rules to be bent; and, of course, the low valuation of human life.

The first reason, in comparison to Pakistan, isn’t so relevant to Russia: the country’s shopping centres and cinemas have mostly been built over the past two decades, and their builders have had the opportunity to plan fire escape routes and install the necessary equipment. Whether they’ve used that opportunity or not is a different question. It is a question of corruption. In Russia, it’s easier to “come to an agreement” with the fire service, and to save money on equipment. The low cost of human life allows businessmen to treat fire safety particularly irresponsibly.

Shopping centre fires with large numbers of victims remain a feature of developing states. The state’s lack of responsibility before its citizens too. There’s a direct and clear connection between these two phenomena

It’s very hard to talk about compensation when these kind of tragedies happen, but without discussing it, we’ll never move forward. In 2015, after an Omsk army barracks collapsed, killing 24 soldiers, economist Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote that the cost of a human life in Russia — if you base it on insurance claims — is dozens, if not hundreds, less than a human life in the west, where given there’s a “possibility of huge losses, both the state and private companies act more carefully, warn their employees if they don’t follow the rules, perfect the norms and regulations of their [employees’] behaviour.” When the cost of a mistake runs to millions of dollars, any company will treat safety regulations with extreme attention. The state can change the compensation situation. It’s a different question of whether it wants to.

After all, the fundamental problem here is not one of money, but the nature of the Russian state. Formally, a governor or minister is not responsible for a tragedy. But in states where those in power are, in fact, elected, where the connection between an individual and the public official who is obliged to serve them has not been broken, officials don’t run away from dissatisfied citizens on the street (as in the recent case of Moscow regional governor Andrey Vorobyov), and on occasion announce their resignation. Kemerovo regional governor Aman Tuleyev is already the centre of attention for his phrase about Vladimir Putin’s call after the tragedy (“It would seem, given his inhuman workload, that he rang me personally”) — and this phrase directly refers to whom Tuleyev really holds himself responsible. At the same time, Tuleyev’s press team told journalists that the governor’s cortege didn’t visit the shopping centre “in order not to make the arrival of emergency services more difficult”.

Shopping centre fires with large numbers of victims remain a feature of developing states. A state’s lack of responsibility before its citizens is another. There’s a direct and clear connection between these two phenomena.

 

About the author

The Russian website Republic (founded in 2009, previously called Slon) specialises in news and analysis. 

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