Responding to disaster: Are we getting too soft?

The Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly serious, but it should not debilitate our resilience

The River Don threatens to burst its banks on November 8th, 2019, in Barnby Dun, near Doncaster, United Kingdom. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The River Don threatens to burst its banks on November 8th, 2019, in Barnby Dun, near Doncaster, United Kingdom. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

The year 2020 will long be remembered as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a very interesting article in Spiked, social scientist Frank Furedi suggests the really big thing about 2020 is not the pandemic itself but rather our reaction to the pandemic.

He claims reaction to Covid-19 is dominated by emphasis on our vulnerability to contracting the disease, with little emphasis on mobilising our resilience to fight adversity. He makes an important point.

Furedi compares public reaction to flooding in Britain in 1952/3 to flooding there in 2000. The 1950s floods were far more destructive, including loss of life, than the 2000 floods. However, in the 1950s it was expected that communities could cope with emergencies and would interpret disorder as a challenge.

Resilience is an essential component of the psychological toolkit we all need to live our lives

This attitude was expressed in the Queen’s 1952 speech congratulating people on their courage and resilience in dealing with the floods. The 2000 floods, on the other hand, were publicly portrayed as uniquely threatening events, likely to overcome individual capacity to cope. An article in the Guardian predicted “up to 20 per cent of flood victims may suffer from post-traumatic stress”.

Of course many things have changed since the 1950s. One big change is the rise of global media and social media, relentlessly pressurising governments to be seen to be doing something. But there are also deeper factors in play.

How a community responds to disaster depends on its culture, morale and leadership in addition to the scope of the disaster itself. Furedi points to the Middle Ages when people interpreted solar eclipses and comets as “disasters” though nobody was killed or injured.

Comets and eclipses signified God’s displeasure with humanity. And, since the 1980s, Furedi claims that our conception of human personhood has changed from viewing ourselves as basically resilient to seeing ourselves as basically vulnerable.

We all inevitably encounter “slings and arrows” as we go through life. Resilience is the psychological capacity to face these problems with courage and resolve and to bounce back when negative circumstances occasionally dump us on our backsides. Resilience is an essential component of the psychological toolkit we all need to live our lives.

Vulnerability

The reaction to Covid-19 has concentrated on our vulnerability, making little attempt to recruit our resilience. Severe preventive measures were introduced to counter our vulnerability to infection – lengthy lockdowns, cocooning of older people, closing “non-essential” businesses, pausing medical screening programs to conserve medical resources to deal with Covid-19, remote-learning at third-level, and more.

We are so pre-occupied with vulnerability that collateral damage consequent on these preventive measures gets very little attention. Collateral damage includes: missed early diagnoses of cancer, heart-disease and other conditions; fear, anxiety and loss of independence in many older people, who believed in the early stages of the pandemic that cocooning was mandatory; closing businesses, many of which will never reopen; massive national debt incurred by Government borrowing money to pay workers whose businesses are closed, and more.

I’m not saying serious preventive measures aren’t necessary to combat Covid-19 – of course they are and our Government made valiant efforts to put a protective model in place.

But I believe that, along with introducing preventive measures, Government should have taken greater pains to foster public resilience, for example: advice from psychologists on how to cope and stay positive; encouraging people to use good judgement based on reliable information supplied by Government; praising people for personal and community effort, and so on.

People would then feel more motivated to take all the simple precautions such as hand-washing, masks, distancing, cough etiquette, avoiding large gatherings, etc.

I also believe we should have kept more of the economy and health services working as we battled the pandemic. And we should have been more mindful of the fact that we must pay for all the collateral damage in the future. We know this bill will be huge, but not how huge.

Trying to remove danger from the world, to make it a “safe space”, is futile and saps our resilience. The best we can do is to take sensible precautions while maintaining our resilience to fight threats as they arise.

Covid-19 tests our capacity to confront and overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly serious but it should not debilitate our resilience.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

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