World’s disasters bring a new degree of trauma to victims

WHEN someone recalls a trauma, their eyes take on a faraway look as they find themselves back in the moment. Some talk in torrents, with words and images and feelings tumbling over each other in an urgent rush to escape. Others, especially those still in shock, seem unnaturally calm because they have not yet felt the full force of their emotions.
Jacqueline Kennedy was like this the week after her husband was shot and she held together the pieces of his skull as their limousine raced to hospital. During an interview she gave days later to writer Theodore White for Life magazine, she was utterly composed. He found she had vivid recall of every grisly detail, as well as an obsessive need to ensure history would cast her husband’s time in office as a “Camelot”. She even gave White the line.
It was separately reported that in the months that followed, her young daughter Caroline told teachers at school that mummy spent day after day in bed, crying. She had, after all, lost her husband, her home, and a whole order of life in a sudden, shocking blow.
Disaster is so public. In Victoria after the fires, in Queensland after the floods, in New Zealand after the earthquake, we can see the ruination of homes and farms and businesses, the natural landscape obliterated by fire or water or earth, the tracks of tears on dirtied and bloodied faces, the blanketing of bodies. In the immediate aftermath, the anguish is felt and seen by the world.
And then the cameras rush on to the next big event, and those who have been traumatised are left to deal with it — or not — behind closed doors.
They can expect sleeplessness and flashbacks and heightened fears about their own safety and the safety of those they love. Some will blame themselves for what they did or didn’t do at the moment of crisis. They will struggle for years with the magnitude of the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives.
Some will get sick as prolonged stress undermines previously healthy bodies. In Victoria, there have been anecdotal reports of Black Saturday survivors suffering from illnesses, including pneumonia and heart attacks, in unusually high numbers in the two years since the fires.
Trauma has always been part of the human condition. It used to be easy to divide its causes into two categories. The first was “acts of God”, such as plague, flood and earthquake. The second was the suffering humans inflict on each other: rape, torture, killing and war.
The Christchurch earthquake falls into the first category. But many disasters that would once have been written off as sheer bad luck — the Queensland cyclone, the Victorian bushfires, the Biblical floods that swept through Pakistan and parts of south-east Asia last year — no longer fit neatly into the shoulder-shrugging category.
Millions are predicted to be traumatised by climate change. The United Nations estimates that by 2020, the world will have 50 million environmental refugees, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was told this week. Like Jackie Kennedy, they will lose their homes and a whole order of life, but unlike her, they will not be cushioned by wealth. They will lose loved ones not to the drama of the assassin’s bullet but to the slow, evil wasting of starvation.
Cristina Tirado, a professor at the University of California, and other speakers told the conference that climate change was already affecting the security of the world’s food supply, and that “when people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate”.
And they riot. Food shortages have been a trigger in many political uprisings from the French Revolution to the present turmoil in the Arab world. This week John Ashton, the British Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change, gave a speech in London at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in which he warned: “Tunisians first came on to the streets in protest at high food prices, driven up by climatically intensified supply shocks. Climate change is a stress multiplier. It is hard to imagine a more effective engine than our interconnected insecurities over climate, food, water and energy for driving angry young people onto the streets of crowded cities. That engine cannot be switched off in a high-carbon economy.”
Our own part of the world will suffer the most, according to a 2009 report by the Asian Development Bank, The Economics of Climate Change in South-east Asia: A Regional Review. Neighbours, including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, could lose up to 6.7 per cent of gross domestic product each year by 2100, more than twice the predicted global average loss, due to floods, droughts and cyclones. The report warned that up to 94 million people in the region could be flooded by rising sea levels.
The four countries are tipped to suffer a fall in potential rice yield of about 50 per cent by 2100, compared with 1990, unless there is action to prevent it.
You don’t have to be a greenie to care about climate change. You just have to be sensitive to human suffering, and to the likelihood that there might soon be a whole new meaning to the expression “a world of pain”.