The invisible pandemicFrom 2015-18, a total of 27,000 families were affected by floods and landslides and 721 lives were lost.
In every disaster, the government’s official responses usually range from rescue and relief to rehabilitation and reconstruction. However, there is one more aspect to disasters we have, unfortunately, rarely paid attention to: The psychological and psychosocial ramifications disaster victims endure. The loss of loved ones, loss of property, displacement and disruption of business and social affairs can cause lasting impacts which go unaddressed. It must be noted that mental illnesses have been on the rise, and suicide rates have reached worrying levels during the lockdown.
The year 2020 has been a disastrous year. First, the novel coronavirus outbreak crippled our way of life. Restrictions on mobility for months along with the anxiety of keeping oneself safe by maintaining physical distance changed our daily lives, closed businesses, lead to massive job losses, weakened the economy, and even stopped people from attending important, personal events such as funerals of loved ones. To add to the already heightened anxiety and frustration, we’ve faced locust swarms. Farmers had to cope with the fear of losing crops which they’ve grown with extreme care during the lockdown. As if these weren’t enough, floods and landslides have been wreaking havoc across the country, having already killed 90 people this past month, damaged crops and houses worth millions of rupees, and displaced hundreds of people. And we’re far from done with this year’s monsoon.
Distress and hopelessness
When disasters damage homes, farms, livestock and other valuable assets, it leads to a feeling of insecurity among the victims. The death of a close one and family displacement are psychological stressors. For farmers who have lost their farm and family members, which is highly probable during these disasters, their new life will be unimaginably bleak.
Experts say that prior mental health problems, gender and age are key pre-disaster risk factors for post-disaster mental illness. The impacts are generally worse for female disaster victims. Women exposed to disasters tend to report higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders. Similarly, children are particularly vulnerable to psychological problems because they are usually less equipped to cope with what they have experienced during such tragedies.
Unlike the coronavirus outbreak, the locust invasion, or even the 2015 earthquake or Bara tornado that caught many of us by surprise, water-induced disasters shouldn’t surprise us. We experience them every year during the monsoon. Records show that between 2015 and 2018, a total of 27,000 families were affected by floods and landslides and 721 lives were lost. These are not mere numbers or statistics; these are human beings with families who have hopes and aspirations like everyone else. The 2015-18 figures illustrate that a significant number of families suffered varying levels of trauma. The unfortunate fact is that a large number of families are added to the list of disaster victims every year.
Loss is personal and so is grief. Loss of security and sense of stability can be more devastating than the disaster itself. It takes time to accept the loss and even more to heal and move on. For many of us, it’s not easy to work through loss. The loss of one’s daily routine, lack of control over one's own possessions and loss of social support often have huge impacts on the concerned individual, and tends to fray communities. The trauma that stays with children is of particular concern as many of them can’t make connections later in life.
The post-disaster mental health needs of communities are as important as other basic needs. It’s worth noting that in the early days of the lockdown, doctors appeared on TV and provided suggestions on how to cope with the stress of the stay-at-home order. Unfortunately, nothing of that sort has ever been provided to victims of disasters. Even if it is only a small village community, disaster impacts are usually devastating, and because of the growing number of nuclear families, we have lost the social/familial cushion that existed to help disaster victims adapt to changes they experience post-disaster. The need for support can’t be overemphasised. It’s time we began addressing the psychological and psychosocial consequences of disasters. However, to deal with long-term trauma, first, we need systems and apparatuses to effectively deal with short-term trauma. Adequate, timely relief paves the way to properly handle mental health at a later stage.
During the lockdown, we witnessed thousands of poor urban families, who had lost jobs and income, receiving relief and emotional support from other members of their community. Had it not been for the support of these generous community members, who donated money and food to help disadvantaged people with rations, cooking gas, medicines, baby food, vegetables, and even soaps and sanitary pads, the condition of many, including new mothers with little to no support, would have gotten worse. In contrast, the relief provided by local governments, where people had to stand in a queue for hours on end, only lasted a few weeks. The money for this work didn’t come through agencies or the government; many of the donors are civilians moved by their sense of community and humanity.
Paving the way
There’s no denying that rescue operations often arrive late when disasters hit rural areas during the monsoon. Relief materials are often inadequate, adding to the distress. If we wish to help disaster victims deal with stresses, the starting point would be answering these basic questions: When did the response reach the victims? What were the constraints? What went well and what could have been done better? What should have been done but could not be done?
The answers will help us understand the limitations and the level of stress that the victims are going through. They will also subsequently help as we build on what has already been established to improve the quality of the response for future disasters. Only with the help of timely and adequate relief for a sustained period will people recover well; else, when the recovery is incomplete, it will lead to a number of persistent psychological symptoms, which may hinder progress, individual or communal, for years—if not decades—to come.