Hello, its Kate Brady again, I’m crashing John’s blog again from maternity leave with the added layers of bunkering down for social isolation in my parents home with 8 month old twins who are on the move and a 4 year old who is missing her dad like crazy and itching to escape the house (blame my dispersed social capital on the COVID-19 realities for my household).
To those people who have the hard earned experience of working in disaster recovery or the harder earned lived experience: I just wanted to remind you that we know how to help people recover from this, and we need to use those skills and knowledge to assist.
We’re in the response phase of a disaster with a high political element, whose hazard is still peaking and is wreaking economic and social mayhem, with the added element of not being able to call on other countries for physical resources.
Sure, this one is big, feels different and is unbounded, but it’s also like the other disasters we’ve been involved with in lots of ways. We know how to be helpful here.
The specifics are unknown, the situation is unfolding, understanding the local context is key and a lot of the people who are thrown into key leadership roles are doing this for the first time. Like all disasters, the recovery experience has already started, even if the systems are still in response mode.
This time we don’t get to pretend there’s an ‘us’ who ‘do it’, and a ‘them’ who ‘receive it’. There is no false luxury of pretending we know who all of the first responders are. We are all in this.
We know that almost all disasters have long-term, compounding, intersecting and complex effects, and that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the community. We also know that for some people recovery means getting back to how things were, and for others it will be about reconciling a new normal.
I know a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed and out of their depth, but it’s our job to help think about the medium and long-term recovery from this disaster, just like we would in any other disaster where most of the focus is on the hazard and the immediate response. This is a job that I know a number of people are working on in earnest.
Considering a lot of the talk of impacts is currently on the broader community, nation and international level, let’s quickly break down the impacts of disasters on individuals.
Disasters impact our physiology, cognitive function, emotional experience and regulation, our social relationships and our core belief system. I think we can agree, this disaster is doing a fine job on all of these domains.
Physiologically, in addition to the impacts of the virus, we’re fluctuating between high spikes of adrenaline and the heavy low sludge of cortisol from protracted stress. Some of us are sleeping differently, moving differently, eating differently and taking care of ourselves differently. There are also the elements of exacerbation of pre-existing illnesses and injuries and reduced access to medical care.
Cognitively, we’re feeling the impacts on our concentration, our problem solving and our big picture thinking. Our memories are slowly forming into a before and after COVID-19. We’re grappling with how to think about the future as too many ‘not possibles’ become possible in rapid succession.
Our emotions are all over the shop. We’re terrified, anxious, bored, angry, frustrated, happy, overwhelmed, grateful and miserable all at the same time. But we’re not moving through these emotions in sync, so we’re grating against each other.
Our behaviour is wildly varied. Some people are mostly feeling the same as they usually do, others are way off kilter. Our rituals, big and small, are being taken away from us. We know that we can expect an exacerbation of deeply concerning issues like increased family violence, interpersonal violence and the unlocking of suppressed racism.
Our social relationships have been dramatically impacted. Not only the obvious stuff that comes with social isolation, but also the changed dynamics of our relationships that will have long-term ramifications. Think of parents who have been stood down or terminated while their teenage child who works casually in a supermarket is now recognised as an essential worker. Older people who perceive their family’s desperate efforts to keep them safe as abandonment. Children who were just getting their social structures sorted out as term 1 came to a close. Partners with colliding work and family demands that are not being managed equally. The ‘hierarchies of affectedness’ that manifest in these situations are real, and they’re stressful. One example I see play out nearly every day online are competitions of levels of distress between those who are living alone and have too much time to fill and those who feel overcrowded with absolutely no time spare both being forced to demand recognition of their hardships in ways that feel unfair and hurtful. These alterations to our relationships will affect us for some time after a vaccination has been developed.
For many, our understanding of how the world works is being given a good shake. Our core belief systems, whatever they look like, are often challenged in disasters, and these effects will play out for a long time. Our sense of safety, predictability, trust in structures we don’t usually think about, and our understanding of our relationships will all be tested.
So. That’s all quite big, isn’t it? No wonder it all feels so overwhelming.
But we know this. We know how to do this. So we need to use our past experiences, existing resources, knowledge and relationships to scale up.
In Australia, we have the national recovery principles of understanding context, recognising complexity, community led approaches, coordination, communicating effectively and capacity building, which should guide all formal interventions that are designed for recovery.
But even more importantly are the mass trauma intervention principles of promoting safety, calm, hope, connection, self and collective efficacy. The wonderful thing about these principles is that they inform bot what and how we do things, big or small.
I don’t mean this to come across as Polly-Anna ish. The challenges ahead are huge, ugly and scary in many ways, and the temptation to focus only on the short term, immediate needs is pressing.
But there is something that is so unifying in this, and the broad scale nature of it means that the recovery efforts, big and small, will be community led.
So to you, my fellow recovery nerds: it’s our job to take a deep breath, settle into that familiar zone where we are in the grey, not the black and white. We need to be the people in the other room that know the situation is unfolding but are focusing on what it will be like when the headlines aren’t on daily infection rates, PPE and border closures. We need to think about what the needs might be in six months, a year, two years, five years and beyond. Then we need to look at how some of these can be mitigated by early action, what things have worked before, what will need to be different, what’s unknown and what can be improvised to make sure these needs can be addressed in a humane, dignified, kind and spirited way.
We might not know the specific details, but we know how to do this.
And now, to destroy John’s hipster music credibility with one from my high rotation play list because I don’t get to choose the music in my house anymore: