Port Hills

Kindness in disaster management: more important than ever

On this anniversary of the Feb 22 Canterbury quake, many are reflecting on their lives over the past 6 years. The earthquakes are not the only challenge that many have had to face. As well as issues with land, homes, insurance, work displacement, travel and transport snags over a long period of time, many have also struggled with general feeling of becoming mired in their own recovery. There are also those unlucky enough to have been involved in further events, such as the Cook Strait and Kaikoura quakes, and the ongoing Post Hills fires. Such is the reality of living in beautiful New Zealand. For those tasked or volunteering to help others through the health and welfare systems or through civil defence activity or other avenues, the burden is even greater. Research shows that rescue and recovery workings engaged in disaster response and relief are at increased risk of developing mental health problems as a result of these activities, especially if they are already in a position of working through their own and others recovery. When I write this sentence, I am thinking in particular of those assisting in the Port Hills fire response - and we are still in response rather than recovery. These volunteers and workers are also at increased risk of empathy exhaustion, burnout and compassion fatigue. It is a tough job, and these workers deserve and need the support of the entire community - from those who they assist and those who task them to assist and those who lead them.

Coordinating and enabling a disaster response across all sectors of society is a complex task, no matter what the size of the disaster. Larger disasters create different problems, but smaller ones bring their own pressures and scrutiny. This is especially so when considered in the context of more recent challenges such as the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes and the impact this has on people’s capacity to assist in recovery over a period of time.

If we are not mindful and careful about this impact, problems may begin to arise. Indeed, we may be getting big clues as to these problems already. Understandably, concerns about the coordination between response organisations and their capability to respond effectively and efficiently have arisen. However, there is a parallel and real risk that a focus on structures and efficiency without also understanding the real human impact that these events have, both on the affected population and those who are serving them, may result in further depersonalisation, demoralisation, and reduced effectiveness. This can increase the risk of very real distress and potential for harm.

Now, more than ever, we need to remember that there is danger is setting up a false dichotomy between efficiency of response and the simple act of expressing kindness, gratitude and compassion. There is no choice to be made. You can, and have always been able to have both compassion in our work and how we deal with each other, and effectiveness and efficiency in response.

Effective coordination between institutions that are fit for purpose and adequately resourced to meet their obligations is critical in all endeavours. But above all, it is the people who matter and make this happen, today, and every other day before, during, and after this anniversary day.

Be kind and fair to each other. It matters a lot.

Johal S. Kindling Kindness for Compassionate Disaster Management. PLOS Currents Disasters. 2015 Oct 5 . Edition 1. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.078959ba72f0d133cd2d8fd7c7d9b23d.