Crowding and Consumer Protection

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday May 29 2011.

Football Hillsborough disaster

We have a beautiful new hospital in Badulla, with modern equipment and helpful staff. Badulla Provincial Hospital provides treatment free to all. Private, paid consultations are carried out in another building, a hell-hole reminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. On our most recent visit to this private clinic access and egress were particularly difficult because the main road outside was being re-made. Whatever about that, access is always difficult. There is only a small forecourt, which is thronged with patients trying to get through the narrow entrance, which also appears to be the only exit, while three-wheelers manoeuvre amongst them. A harassed peon tries vainly to control the melee as people book in at reception.

The crowd surges up the narrow staircase into the crowded waiting rooms. There is air of clammy anxiety about the place. All the waiting rooms are packed and all the seats are taken. Every available inch of space is taken and one constantly has to shuffle about to let people pass. We have to stand for two hours although we are there because my wife has chronic spine problems. Our ticket number is 19. A woman with ticket number 32 is clearly very stressed and keeps trying to get into the consultation room arousing the anger of other patients. She may have travelled far and now it is dark outside and raining heavily. An ugly mood could develop into a riot and a stampede. The room is very hot and our clothes are drenched with sweat. Our particular waiting room is the furthest back and there is no exit door. If there was a fire, we would have to fight our way through the crowd in the corridor and down the narrow stairs.

Elias Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power that both socialism and capitalism were defined by the “modern frenzy of increase”, in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

I have a fear of being caught in crowds. I am not phobic. My fear is perfectly rational. There are names for a phobic fear of crowds – demophobia, enochlophobia or ochlophobia – and you can pay people to cure you. Professor Keith Still has devoted his life to studying crowd dynamics. There is much interesting material on his website:

I remember being caught in a press of crazed hippies trying to get into the music venue the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Both my feet were off the ground and I think it was right to be scared. A peaceful afternoon and evening watching a Neil Young concert in Finsbury Park was spoiled by being “kettled” into a dangerous zone by huge police horses.

Readers may remember the horror of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Ninety-six people died because of the crush at a football match in Sheffield. Before the kick-off, a bottleneck had developed outside the ground with more fans arriving than could enter the Leppings Lane Stand. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained as an obstruction. The police, to avoid deaths outside the ground, opened a set of gates, intended as an exit, which caused a rush of supporters through the gate into the stadium.

A huge crush built up at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence. The intensity of the crush had broken the crush barriers on the terraces, later holes in the perimeter fencing were caused by desperate fans tearing. Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia. The pitch quickly started to fill with people sweating and gasping for breath and injured by crushing, and with the bodies of the dead.

Only 14 of the 96 fatalities ever arrived at a hospital. The final death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when Tony Bland was taken off a life support machine after four years in a vegetative state. Andrew Devine, eight years after he was also rendered vegetative at the age of 22, became aware of his surroundings and started communicating with his family. He is still alive.

The tragedy changed the face of English football as safety measures were introduced.

There have been many instances, even in recent times, of fires in garment factories and sweat shops. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York can stand as a specimen. This was the deadliest disaster in New York until 9/11. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Like Hillsborough, the Shirtwaist tragedy led to changes. Globally though, workers continue to die because the greed of employers makes them negligent about

There have been many instances of people being killed in crowded night clubs and discos. In January this year, Hungarian police arrested five people in connection with the apparent trampling to death of three young women at a nightclub in Budapest. Police focused on whether the disco was overcrowded and whether it had sufficient exits. Interior minister Sandor Pinter said that almost 3,000 people were admitted to the event, although the disco had a capacity of only 1,600 and emergency exits sufficient for just 307 patrons. He described the organizers of the event as “irresponsible” and “greedy.” He said he had ordered a review of the law. “This cannot happen again,” he said.

Everyone here is here in this private clinic because they are sick enough to consult a doctor, sick enough to put themselves through this hell. How many people go through this building every day? How many people will be crammed into the building together at any given time? Are the proprietors required by law to limit the numbers? How would they be evacuated in an emergency? Health and safety law seems to be focused on the protection of employees. What are the rights of customers? I have written to the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority but have yet to receive a reply.

I said there are cures for ochlophobia. Would you have to endure such conditions to see the doctor?

How long will it be before patients are crushed and killed in this kind of situation? How long before a minister has to say: “This cannot happen again”.

I would like to hear the views of doctors and patients. I would like information on what the law says about this.