Are we Prepared for Crises?

When I wrote down my goals for 2020, pandemic and isolation were two terms that had not crossed my mind. Neither had panic buying, toilet paper wars or ‘saving the world by staying home’! I had anticipated 2020 would be challenging, however, my guestimates were based on personal goals and perceived obstacles to the achievement of those goals. We are close to the halfway mark for the year but with everything that has been happening since late 2019 it feels like we have cycled through another decade.

Let’s recap. On the 31st of December, much of Australia had been reeling from the devastating bushfires. Blankets of smoke had been the signature mark of Sydney’s skies. Much of our conversations had centred on air quality, visibility and ensuring we had our bushfire plans in place. In a nutshell, smoke, sirens and soot were the order of the day, neatly punctuated by checks of the fires near me App. By the time we hit February things were starting to look up. The religious and irreligious had waited, hoped and even prayed. Then it happened. The rains poured. A welcome relief that evoked many emotions. Finally, our frontline warriors who had been battling the multiple blazes would get a break.

When the rains poured, they poured in abundance. They came with a combination of hail, strong winds and that one cousin of theirs whom I dislike, flooding. However, for many it was a time to dance and rejoice because it meant that relief had also come for our farmers who had been battling to make ends meet after a prolonged drought. The drought, combined with the bushfires, had been lethal. In a matter of days following the downpour, the water levels in dams had risen high enough to see water restrictions eased in New South Wales. However, this did not make up for much of our native wildlife that had been consumed by the fires. Lives were lost, as were livelihoods; complete local economies were destroyed and of course the emergency response systems were stretched beyond capacity. I daresay, the nation had been dealt a blow by mother nature.

Just when we thought we were on the road to recovery, March 2020 introduced Corona to us. Soon declared a pandemic. Then it was pandemonium and toilet paper wars!!! Honestly, the irony of my final December blog in which I had reflected on the last decade is not lost on me. It is as though the chaos that had gripped many in 1999 at the mention of Y2K had been preparation for the first quarter of 2020. Corona has turned the world upside down and shaken many individuals and systems. I don’t intend on dwelling on the pandemic in this post. All I can say is my heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones. I have greater appreciation for frontline staff and everyone that has laboured to keep things ‘sane’ in these difficult times.

I have been intrigued by various government responses to crises, especially, the pandemic. Even more intriguing are the complaints and criticisms that have been raised by the public about governments. There is a lot that people expect from government. I’ve said this before and I say it again, governments do not know it all (some unfortunately do not know anything at all), neither are they well resourced or best placed to address certain issues. Yes, there is a part for governments to play and in whatever jurisdictions we find ourselves we should keep them to account. However, there is a role for communities to play.

One that I can think of is in the resilience building space. When I speak of communities, I’m referring to the neighbourhoods we live in and the social groups we physically and digitally plug into. There are opportunities and avenues to build relationships in a way that ensures when trouble comes knocking, even the most vulnerable amongst us can come out still strong.

There is a level of care institutions are unable to provide by virtue of their structure and purpose. Think about the softer side of things – moral support, consolation, comfort, simple conversation or just a reassuring ‘are you ok’ phonecall. Are we having conversations about the supports and services required by our communities to ensure while we wait for governments to do their part, individuals and families are not being harmed? What are we doing to ensure our communities grow in a healthy and inclusive way? Are we equipping and empowering those within our communities to know where to seek help, who to turn to for assistance or how to begin addressing catastrophes? Most of all, are we on the look out for those most vulnerable amongst us? The strength and ability for a whole to bounce back from an issue does depend a lot on how strong the smaller units hold together, and how well the whole and the parts collaborate!

Let’s face it , by the time institutional responses are developed, some damage has already been done to vulnerable groups and having to navigate through certain systems only compounds their challenges including trauma!! I have watched my fair share of the supermarket war videos when pandemic tensions were at their peak. I’ve also read a fair share of articles about loneliness (it is real), domestic violence and the likely fall outs or marriage breakdowns anticipated post pandemic. I do wonder if these are all issues we can tackle by creating stronger communal ties that enable us to work through issues and address the vulnerabilities that threaten to unravel some people’s worlds.

I remember reading a good Samaritan thread on Twitter. One woman walking through a supermarket car park noticed an elderly couple beckoning her to their car. She obliged. The driver opened their window only slightly and through the cracked window held out cash and a piece of paper. Their request? “Could you please purchase a few essentials for us, and this is the list. We are not as strong, and we have heard this is killing older people. We’ve tried asking a few people and they’ve just gone by”. The lady was kind enough to do the shopping for them! This tugged at me for so many reasons that I am still processing.

Just before WHO declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, the NSW Government announced the establishment of a new agency , Resilience NSW. This agency has been tasked with “driving world-leading disaster preparedness and recovery approaches for the NSW community”. Much of the focus of the agency will be to “advance work on how NSW can prevent, prepare and recover from crises”. Before you get excited, just remember this is something that comes in the aftermath of large scale crises. It is not to downplay how great this milestone is. It is just an acknowledgement of how long it took, at an institutional level, for a proactive approach to be implemented.

I cannot say exactly how big a difference such agency would have had to policy making 5 years ago. However, I do know any work it would have undertaken then would have been quite critical to informing decisions being made today about what services and supports should be funded to restore communities and regenerate local economies. This is a FACT I will stand by!

The 2019 bushfire season and everything else in between till Corona has demonstrated how we have been on the backfoot of many things. Now the question is, with what we know now, what will we do differently to better prepare our communities for challenging times? More importantly, what will we do in relation to the most vulnerable amongst us? How will we work towards building resilience at the individual and group level? Keen to hear your thoughts 😊

On a lighter note, if anyone finds out how one can get reimbursement from Hollywood for time and money invested in watching all those doomsday movies, especially 2012 & the Happening,  please let me know. I am underwhelmed by the script that reality has delivered under the awkward title of COVID-19!





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