Preparation or optimistic denial? How do we face disaster?

Preparation or optimistic denial? How do we face disaster?


In the midst of a brief Corona respite in August, The FT and The Week, ran an article titled ‘Why we Fail to prepare for disasters’. The author Tim Harford explored why, despite the predictability of many disasters, so many people (those in power as well as us mere mortals) fail to act. He explored the recent hurricane disasters in the USA, the near miss in 2004 that saved New Orleans, but then found the city unprepared for the disaster that struck just a year later with Hurricane Katrina. Arguably – Sars and Ebola were warnings of the current Covid19 pandemic – but again how prepared was the world and did it take heed from these outbreaks?

Psychologists call this non action – normalcy bias or negative panic – being slow to recognise danger and not acting appropriately or quickly enough. Other explanations include herd instinct – we don’t panic because other people aren’t, so we’re reassured. How many people were in pubs and restaurants the day before lockdown not really thinking there was anything to worry about (I put my hand up to this one – bit embarrassed about that now).

My favourite explanation is Optimism bias that I think is a particular trait here in the UK – we tend to think it won’t happen to us, these disasters are things that happen in other countries, in hotter countries or wetter countries, or poorer countries.

Let’s not forget too that preparing for something that might not happen takes away resources from things that are already in need of more cash – our health and social services for example. These are big decisions, and our leaders are fallible too. This is not letting anyone off the hook – don’t get me started on that – but it’s part and parcel of the way we all make decisions and envisage reality and risk.

Now as we enter more lockdowns are we more accepting and prepared? I don’t mean have we already stocked up on loo roll and pasta, but are we mentally prepared? Did we think we would be still be in this situation? Did the summer give us a sense of normalcy that hindered our mind shift to a new normal this winter? Hands up who booked a spring break for 2021 thinking it would all be over by then?

On a much more basic level – our choices of retail, food, hospitality, arts, music and culture options are becoming changed, limited or non-existent – how could we possibly be prepared for this? Being prepared for a deadly virus is sort of understandable, it’s a health issue but the knock on effect to all aspects of our lives is still strange to take in. Family events, holidays cancelled and a simple visit to M&S to buy new knickers becoming like undertaking an SAS operation.

Watching ads on TV that depict normal lives just seems sad and a bit weird, particular the ones with happy groups of people. The early pandemic ads of us all being in it together already seem like a world away, we’re not are we? We’re being tiered, separated, and confused.

In the future perhaps we need to review how we can be better equipped to cope with such dramatic change. Aside from the obvious need for more mental health support, do we also need new curriculums in schools to teach resilience and coping skills? Do we all need help to build resilience and coping skills? Do workplaces need to do different types of risk assessments? We now know that these things do absolutely happen to us, it will become part of our history and ongoing legacy – and head in the sand probably isn’t a good tool anymore.