Paul Valent

Paul Valent

Consultant liaison psychiatrist, psychotherapist, traumatologist,
Co-founder and past president Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies,

We Will Survive this Disaster

March 20, 2020

Last week (only a few days ago, but in crises time expands), the bubble burst. For some it may have been the scenes of crowds turned back from the Grand Prix. The no-nonsense shutting down of social activities, the plunging stock market, panic buying, creeping in of terms like The Great Depression, and comparisons to the Apocalypse have all warned us that our world has changed dramatically.

We need clear information on how the world has changed and how it will change in order to prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering.

Information is available. Yes, we have seen something like this before, and yes, in spite of many deaths and the global dimension, this is more a disaster than the Apocalypse. And yes, current responses are typical of what is called the pre-impact phase of disasters, a phase when denial can somersault into panic and end-of-life images.

And yes, disasterology tells us that the key antidote to denial and panic is reliable information.

For instance, a key lesson from the Black Saturday bushfires (remember bushfires?) was that the large death toll was due to ‘lack of leadership, poor communication and mistaken ideologies’ (Valent, The Age, Aug 6, 2009). In the recent bushfires information and communication were much improved with the result of a smaller death toll in spite of more extensive fires.

Thankfully, current information has the requirements of honesty, timeliness, factuality, unambiguity, and detail. This must continue in order for it to be effective, for people to follow directions and make sacrifices. People must trust that the leadership genuinely cares for all, especially the most vulnerable. It is encouraging that the prime minister and his cabinet have abandoned ideology and spin, deferred to science, and have expressed care.

Reliable information is one thing, but it must be processed correctly by the recipients. We must avoid information overload, rumours, and uninformed opinion. We may limit our news intake and rely on known reliable sources, such as our government’s web site at Australian Government Department of Health / corona virus COVID 19, and the WHO’s coronavirus2019.

Some crave specific information: how, when, where, to care for children, the elderly, and the sick? How to access this or that help? How much and how to batten down the hatches? How to ensure essential resources- food, toilet rolls?

Information needs to be comprehensive, updated, and address specific anxieties in order to prevent waste of energy and antisocial responses.

For instance, the recent panic buying of food and toilet rolls harks back to civil unrests and wars when these items became scarce. Information that this crisis is different to wars and that Australia has plenty of food and toilet rolls came too late to prevent panic buying. It was panic, not shortages that resulted in empty shelves.

So far I have talked about information that guides our instinctive responses to threats. However, we need information also about secondary threats, which can be even more damaging than the corona virus.

Accidents, whether car, industrial and domestic increase in disasters due to increased arousal and distractibility. We need information to alert us to be extra careful in these areas.

This is an example that we need to maintain information about ourselves. So much of us is generous, even heroic. But we suffer fears, longings to touch and be touched by loved ones from whom we are isolated, and we feel helplessness, frustrations, and grief. Some of our physical symptoms arise from these emotions. Monitoring and expression of such feelings provides physical and emotional relief and control.

This helps us to maintain perspective and knowledge of whether we underfear or overfear. Such knowledge will facilitate us to take the advice of maintaining routines of sleep, rest, activity, hygiene and medications.

We need to inform ourselves and prepare for the next phase- the impact phase: the shock of rise in infections, the death of someone we know, the possibility of ourselves being infected.

We can look forward to the recovery and post-disaster phases. Ultimately, we know that this disaster will pass, and the great majority of us will escape unharmed.

Even now there are glimmers of hope. Polluted skies above China and Italy have cleared. Leaders have had a reality check that may continue into the future. They may continue to pay respect to science work on climate change.

When this is over, we will also carry over into the future the current resurgence of energy, activity, and creativity.

In the meantime there are tough days ahead, but the world will not end.

Paul Valent has been a pioneer in disasterology and traumatology in Australia. He was lead author in the Red Cross pamphlet used in Australia and internationally Coping with a Major Personal Crisis, available on the Red Cross web site.

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