For months I have been working intensely on the lessons of the nuclear disaster in Fuksuhima 2011 for professional reasons, not least in the field of communication.
The parallels to the current corona crisis are striking, not only for me:
“The situation today reminds me very much of spring 2011 here in Japan,” a high-ranking member of the Japanese authorities has told me already three weeks ago. And the Japanese NGO “Safecast”, which became famous as the “Citizen Science Network” during the Fukushima disaster, states: “As we observe the global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the responses to it, we can’t help but feel a bit of déjà vu. – The coronavirus outbreak in 2020 is similar in many ways to the Tohoku earthquake / Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown.”
As a political advisor in the nuclear safety community and with my background as a communicator in the former Swiss military organisation of the central government for exceptional crisis situations like war, natural disasters and pandemias, my special interest is focused on the communication strategy of the authorities and its reception by the population and the media.
Fukushima was and is a painful lesson in how to deal with a major crisis – including the current corona crisis. But the corona crisis will also teach us a lesson in the management of future crises, not least, for future nuclear disasters.
In an article in the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist” the two (american) founders of “Safecast”, Azby Brown and Sean Bonner, underline the similarities of the threat and the crucial role of reliable information for the people confronted with such an unknown threat:
“Fear of the unknown is normal, and radiation and viruses are both invisible threats that heighten anxiety. Most people have almost no way to determine for themselves whether they have come into contact with either of these threats, and they find themselves dependent on specialists, testing devices, and government and media reports.”
Safecast has published a best practice for dealing with the corona crisis on its website based on its experience from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Their advice to governments:
- Prioritize transparency. There is no outcome where misleading the public today is beneficial tomorrow. Conversely, honesty will pay future dividends like crazy.
- Safety first. Do not risk the long term health of your constituents for short term political gain. Keeping people from getting sick should not be a partisan issue.
- Trust is not a renewable resource. This isn’t the 1920’s anymore, people have many sources of information to turn to–if they don’t feel they can trust you they will simply look somewhere else and not look back.
The implicit critique of this “advice” fits with the populists in power in the USA or Mexico or Brazil, but it is not really valid for the governments in Europe.
Actually, I can only judge the actions of the Swiss authorities: So far, they have not fallen in the populist trap.
They neither downplayed the threat nor panicked with maximum measures. From the very beginning of the crisis they have consistently followed a clear plan; in full transparency: “Slow down the spread of the virus in order to enable our health system to cope with the acute cases. – We can not prohibit the spread of the virus, but we can slow it down.”
At the moment I am writing this, the Swiss government has decided not to impose a curfew (until further notice), neither only for the over 65s nor for everyone.
They have not given in to growing public pressure to take these measures. And we can be pretty sure, that the public and media will accept this decision like they have accepted the previous measures of the government.
The biggest assest of the Swiss Government today, making the biggest difference to the situation of the Japanese government in 2011, is: trust.
In a crisis, it is crucial to have trust from the very beginning or at least win it with your first actions. It is very easy to loose trust, but it is very difficult to win it back, once you have lost it.
In Japan 2011, it was lost from the very beginning: For years, the Japanese authorities had let the public believe, that an accident in the nuclear power plants will not happen.
“Not even in our dreams, we thought this could happen”, said Yuko Endo, the Mayor of Kawauchi, one of the villages that were evacuated in the Fukushima Prefecture 2011, when I visited his village last fall.
When the nuclear power plant exploded, it was a total breech of trust. People felt betrayed. They no longer trusted any government information. Worse still, because the governement itself and its experts were convinced, it would never happen, the disaster wasn’t prepared at all. Hastily, emergency measures had to be thrown together – and they proved to be counterproductive. “The most disruptive measures implemented were evacuations”, write Brown and Bonner. It resulted in about 60 deaths of critically ill patients who should not have been moved, and to 2000 deaths (until today) in subsequent months due to “collateral”, psycho-social damages caused by the stress of prolonged dislocation and fear of radiation, even though, not a single death was caused by radiation. (Results of the latest official japanese survey).
In Switzerland 2020, the government has been very outspoken about the threat of the corona virus from the beginning: “It will be bad. All we can do, is to slow it down, stretch its impact over time and try to make sure, that the health infrastruture is able to cope with the most acute cases.”
And Switzerland was prepared for the pandemic, as far as you can prepare it. Its measures were and still are based on the “Swiss Influenza Pandemic Plan”, which was last revised in 2018. And, most important, the government and its experts decided for a step by step strategy, knowing that it is easier to tighten measures than to weaken them later.
I am full of respect for what the Swiss government has done so far. It is a risky strategy. It asks a lot of courage and leadership – and trust in the government’s experts and advisors. The strategy can backfire, still. And when it backfires, it will do so on two levels: The situation can run out of control causing a lot of harm, and the responsible leaders risk to be held responsible.
“If you act too timidly”, the German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has warned his young colleague Health Minister Jens Spahn, “you may end up having to justify yourself before a committee of inquiry.”
The question, however, is what acting “timidly” means. In the modern “western” societies, it seems to mean, that a leader does not dare to take the most extreme step from the very beginning, because he fears being criticised by the media, “independent” experts or leaders of the suffering economy.
This attitude reflects the currently raging misunderstanding of the precautionary principle: Better safe than sorry.
The authorities in Japan fell into this trap in 2011: They ordered a large-scale evacuation before they even knew how much radiation there would be and without any preparation for the consequences of this evacuation.
In their panic, they only focused on the risk of radiation ignoring all other risks. They disregarded the main obligation that the precautionary principle actually implies: Be cautious, but make sure that your measures don’t do more harm than good.
With this duty to weigh up the risks, to make sure that a well-intentioned measure is not not doing more harm than good the decision-makers in the Corona crisis are confronted every step of the way:
Today, the Swiss Government has decided, not to impose a general curfew, not even for those over 65. I has resisted the pressure of many who called for such measures. “We do not make spectacle decisons”, Health Minister Alain Berset said, while he almost defiantly looked at the journalists at the government’s press conference.
This decision implies the risk that the virus will spread faster than the hospitals can cope with. But the decision-makers may have weighed this risk with an other risk, which was underestimated in Japan 2011: the socio-psychological damages caused by isolation of people. What, if this isolation will cause higher numbers of deaths than those occuring without the curfew? Will we see an increased number of depressions leading to more suicides or collateral illnesses like alcoholism, obesity or diabets. How will the people cope with isolation? Bored and frustrated, getting aggressive or even violent? And what about the economy?
Finally, wisely, the Swiss Government has taken a typical Swiss solution: “A Swiss kind of curfew” , how the Neue Züricher Zeitung calls it: tightening the measures by limiting the freedom of movement more, but leaving room for personal responsibilty. A curfew “the population implements itself”.
And what lessons the Corona crisis teaches us for a future crisis in case of a nuclear accident, wherever in the world? I’m aware that I owe an answer to that question as of today. I will give it soon. Not everybody will like it.