Earthquakes, the pandemic and floods – cycles of emotions

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Road worker stopping the traffic during flooding and mudflow event in Cable Bay, Northland.

In 2011, after the Christchurch earthquake, the Government asked me to consider the psychological consequences of the earthquake. The report I wrote then is available here.

I made minor revisions and re-released it after the Kaikōura earthquake. I have been asked whether that report is still relevant to the challenges created by the storms, landslides, and flooding of the last few weeks. Indeed, it is.

The report highlights the phases of emotional responses to a disaster and the prolonged nature of the response, which will vary according to the individual and their circumstance. But the punchline was that recovery is not complete until agency has been restored to people and they feel in control again of their lives. And that can take years after physical recovery.

Last year, the International Science Council, of which I am president, released a report Unprecedented and Unfinished: Covid-19 and implications for national and global policy looking at the complex cascade of consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. It highlighted how mental health, educational, and social concerns would echo for years after the pandemic settled into an endemic phase.

It also highlighted that crises exacerbate inequalities and inequality makes people more vulnerable in and after a crisis. We need to reflect on whether this series of storms and floods interacts with the residua of that pandemic and whether it may make the psychological consequences for many people, more severe or more prolonged. There are reasons to think some will have become more psychologically vulnerable, while many show great resilience. A sense of community will be critical.

The scale of the recent flooding and cyclone disasters compound years of health concerns, disrupted education, business losses and economic challenges. Some of the greatest storm damage is in areas of relative disadvantage. Policy-makers will need to give attention to short- and long-term social, educational, psychological, and economic recovery.

There will be long periods of uncertainty for many, irrespective of short-term assistance. Questions abound such as can they rebuild on the land they own? Can their businesses and the local economy recover? Can their dreams and investment in their lives be recovered, and can their fears about the future be addressed?

Those affected will progress through the cycles of emotions, as I discussed in 2011. These will challenge both local and central governments. It will not be easy, and we can expect fear, anger, frustration, and resignation to be exhibited over many months. Rebuilding psychological equilibrium will take longer than the physical recovery for many. We are in for a long haul.

See also:

Media release: Psychological recovery from disasters needs support

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