Will we ever learn?

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It seems that lessons on safety and responsibility are never learnt in Vietnam. Or, they are learnt and almost immediately forgotten.

After every accident that kills, the "usual suspects" are trotted out with monotonous regularity: investigations show it was human error, neglect of safety measures, and so on; investigations have been launched, or are ongoing; people have been arrested and may be charged with negligence. "Concerned agencies" will launch awareness programs and measures will be taken to improve safety and prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.

But they do happen.

Again and again.

In May, we had a boat accident that killed 16 people in the southern province of Binh Duong. The boat was found to have structural faults, putting it at risk of capsizing in strong winds, and the port where it operated was found to have never been licensed. How and why it operated undiscovered for months or years is never properly explained.

Now, last Friday, we had a factory fire in the northern city of Hai Phong that killed 17 and injured 21 workers of a leather footwear factory. Immediately after the accident, the police arrested six people on charges of violating labor regulations.

Initial information showed that the accident happened because burning ashes from wielding dropped on some spongy material. Worse still, agencies found that the factory had no back door, while the front door was blocked by the big fire, so the victims were trapped inside.

Many were burned to death on the spot. Some succumbed later in the hospital to serious burn injuries.

With all that has happened with previous fatal accidents, there is a slim chance that, this time, law enforcers will take into consideration the responsibilities of officials and agencies that licensed the badly-designed factory.

If people in charge had spent some time inspecting the factory before granting the license, there is no way that the 150-square-meter factory, where 40-50 workers worked with flammable materials but had no emergency exit, would get a license.

In fact, we can extend it to every sector under the licensing process.

There is no way an industrial park would be licensed without a proper waste treatment system. There is no way underground tunnels can be dug for discharging untreated effluents into rivers or other water bodies for more than 15 years without being discovered at the outset. There is no way mining projects would get licensed, knowing they would destroy the environment and livelihoods of people, without ensuring every environmental and socio-economic impact is taken into consideration. There is no way cassava or sugar planter can get licenses without adequate pollution-mitigating measures in place. There is no way that resorts and golf courses will be allowed to deface naturally beautiful landscapes with the horrifically Orwellian "eco-tourism" moniker.

This is not rocket science. It is common sense and an obvious, glaring truth that we are repeating our mistakes in a serial fashion. The current approach is to jump from situation to situation instead of preparing and executing long-term preventive solutions.

We need lasting solutions, not short-term emergency responses.

It is inexplicable that "concerned agencies" fail to grasp some of the basics despite eerily similar accidents happening many times in different fields.

There is a case to be made, however, that in the matter of accidents, the issue goes beyond culpability of officialdom or the citizenry to a question of when Vietnam as a nation can develop a "security culture" where the key principle is prevention, not problem-solving.

The culture should find expression in each and every individual so that she/he is aware of risks and unafraid to express feelings of insecurity. As a priority, laws should be established to protect people's right to express such feelings.

These first steps are essential for developing a security culture in Vietnam.

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