How Disaster Liberates Us Into The Present                                                          (and connects our lives to the lives of others)

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, was the strongest in American history, with a magnitude of 9.2. As Jon Mooallem shares in his column, “This is How you Live When the World Falls Apart” in The New York Times, “there are moments when the world we take for granted changes, when reality is abruptly ended and the unimaginable overwhelms real life.”  For Alaska, in its infancy, at a mere five years old, this was one of those moments.

Washington Post 1
Source: Washington Post

While an earthquake might be more sudden, brief and regionally isolated compared to the inconspicuous, elongated and global crisis of COVID-19, the commonality is that they both changed life, as we know it.

Alaska’s earthquake, being the first of this magnitude became an area of focus for social scientists at the newly established Disaster Research Centre, in Ohio State, funded by the U.S. Dept. of Defence.  The scientists studied society’s reactions to disaster, mostly in the realm of natural disasters. The predicted outcome, according to Mooallem was a form of societal breakdown and a state of chaos with people escaping the disastrous sites. They also expected looting and violence.

What they witnessed was the opposite. Instead they saw astounding amounts of kindness and collaboration. Everyday people crawled through ruins in search for survivors, helped others salvage belongings from crumbled homes, used ropes to heave people out of debris and transformed their cars into tow-trucks that could transfer enormous facades of concrete.

washington 2
Source: Washington Post

Our behaviour during COVID-19 continues to support the belief that sociologists and disaster specialists note as being a common denominator in these situations – “resilience, level headedness, kindness and cooperation.” Our behaviour however in helping each other however, looks differently than Alaska’s, and is dictated by our “staying apart to work together” mandate.

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Source: Toronto Public Health

Let me remind you though, we didn’t start off so idyllically. At the onset, every outing I had resembled holiday shopping in December…  x 100. People fighting over parking spots, double-parked in drug store driveways, arm wrestling over shopping carts (as well as the obvious trophies of toilet paper, paper towel and Lysol). But we seemed to have grown up and developed some common sense since those earlier days of panic, even if some of it was imposed upon us.

One thing I’ve certainly noticed in our own city lately is the unfamiliar sound of silence. Not merely the auditory kind. But that of crime. Last year, with 292 people shot, 2019 came to an end with a record year for bloodshed in Toronto and its overall gun violence.

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Source: Toronto Star

Just as with the expectations in Alaska over 50 years ago, I’ve recently heard the authorities and government discuss the risks of societal behaviour, upheaval, and other crime during COVID-19. I have yet to see it.  In fact, up until a few days ago, I thought it had almost disappeared completely.  Then I came across Brad Hunter’s Toronto Sun opinion column emphasizing “there’s no vaccine for murder.” From Hamilton to Toronto since early March, there have been 9 murders. We unfortunately haven’t seen the same halt in murder that we saw after 9/11 and even after historical ice storms from not so long ago, that froze our cities to stillness. Hunter commented that “it’s business as usual for these killers.”

My bubble of societal goodness had suddenly been burst. But despite this grim statistic, we seem to be focusing more and more on the “good” these days. There’s no denying it. We all know that bad news travels faster than good, but the good seems to be gaining momentum. My hope is that as we fight to flatten the curve of this pandemic, and when (not “if”) our numbers continue to climb, our kindness does the same. If history is any indication, as it often is, we can look back to look ahead. Being kinder in difficult situations, isn’t miraculous or unique. It’s historical. And it’s human. We develop a collective conscience as a result of it.

According to two of the founders of the Disaster Research Centre, Russel Dynes and Enrico Quarantelli there’s a reason for it. Disasters such as COVID-19 don’t discriminate.  They affect everyone. Most often, we’re used to suffering alone. As a result, we’re pitted against one other and have mixed emotions.  Why me? Why not me?

There are varying levels of curiosity, guilt, and even envy when there’s not an equal playing field.  At the level of suffering we’re seeing today because of this “silent assassin” we are all sharing in the same experience, which brings us together in a very powerful, psychological, sense. According to Dynes and Quarnatelli, “It leaves us as human beings responding to one another as human beings” with a resulting vulnerability that is the thread that connects all of us. Evidence that good things can come from bad situations.

The amazing finding of the Disaster Research Centre team studying the orchestration of the response in Alaska, was that there was no orchestration. It merely happened. Jon Mooallem refers to this as “the awakening of a dormant capacity, an impulse for people to come together and care for one another that feels almost inaccessible in ordinary life.”  I re-read that line several times, mostly because it stings, and for the majority of us, it rings true. It’s a sad truth and disappointing that as a human race, and among everyday circumstances, we can’t dig deep enough and discover that golden part of ourselves.

While some of our efforts living among COVID-19 mirror those from Alaska, we have the additional  challenge of helping each other – from a distance. Our enemy is invisible. The past couple of weeks have taught us just how difficult this can be. It requires a different kind of strength from that that which you use during the residue of an earthquake. It’s not physical. It’s a mental game. And it’s one that we all have to play in order to win this game. Because by staying together, yet apart, we are part of the cure. Some people buy into this more than others, but it’s backed in scientific fact.

Ashleigh Tuite and David Fisman, epidemiologists and professors at the University of Toronto worked on a mathematical model with The New York Times to calculate and predict the spread of the virus in different populations.  It showed how specific actions can shape the epidemic curve.

A quick response:

  • decisive implementation of measures such as increased testing
  • rapid isolation of cases
  • quarantine of those exposed and
  • social distancing measures” shape the epidemic curve. ”

Tuite and Fisman also provided what I think is an excellent and simple analogy that is easy for most of us to understand.

They encourage us to think of the COVID-19 as a forest fire. “Those infected with COVID-19 are sparks being thrown off and those uninfected are the fuel. We know that the fire is going to spread, but we want to control the burn as best we can.”

When we think of fires, the first thing we often think of is that they are catastrophic. But other times, they don’t spell out disaster – instead, they are intentional and replenish ecosystems. COVID-19 seems to be playing out as both.

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I do hope that we come out of this somewhat replenished. I hope that when the day arrives that we are free to go outside of our homes, free to walk about with what will feel like naked faces (no masks), and free to shake hands when we greet people, and free to hug friends, family  and colleagues, that we remember what we discovered. That we remember this “better” part of ourselves that we have managed to uncover, that was buried deep within ourselves.

It’s going to be critical. Since, as Jon Mooallem mentions in his closing, we’re going to need it again one day. “We don’t walk around thinking about it, [but] we know that instability is always there; at random and without warning, a kind of terrible magic can switch on and scramble our lives.”

I pray that that day is far, far away. In the meantime, let’s remember how we came together, through our separateness, to beat this horrible villain.

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