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Resilience and trust, in crisis



It has teemed with rain leading to widespread flooding and erosion of beaches. COVID-19 consumes us, reaching more and more parts of the world, more and more people in the affected countries, and plunging them into economic downturns.

A stylised Australia builds house in face of fire, floods and COVID-19. Illustration by Chris JohnstonMorrison says his focus is ‘to protect the health, the wellbeing, and livelihoods of Australians through this global crisis’. The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent David Crowe, summarises ‘the months ahead (as) a murky period of economic and social uncertainty, with nobody sure when the coronavirus will peak, nor when it might pass'.

Despite this gloomy outlook, I still mainly look back. The bushfire legacy lives on. It acts as a benchmark for assessing tragedy and hope.

I cannot get the searing images out of my head of red, angry skies, of flames raging frighteningly, embers flying, and firefighters miraculously persevering against the odds.

I was in inner-west Sydney where suffocating smoke — puce light and eerie — and birdless silence pervaded. Well away from the regional epicentres, we were still glued to impossible to leave visuals and accompanying commentary, including of evacuation centres, tables brimming with donated goods, families clutching each other in fear and emotional support.

We have since been urged to holiday in Australia. Travel writers and operators tell us how the bush will recover and how local communities would welcome us with open arms.

Perversely, with the rise of COVID-19, travel has mostly been pushed off the agenda. Bookings are being cancelled, more for overseas than for here. When will global travel ever be the same again?


'During an exceptional Q+A on the bushfires, National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan said ‘it is not OK to be OK when you have lived through trauma for which it is impossible to find the words to describe’. I did a double-take. Had I heard her correctly?'


Writer Trent Dalton’s moving account in The Australian, From Bateman’s Bay to Mallacoota, revealed the strength and desolation, fear and hope of the communities on his route. One of the devastated small towns he wrote about was Mojo, with its world-class zoo.

He could not get over how there were ‘no washing machines, no wardrobes, no underwear drawers, no pants. Just the clotheslines still standing where whole homes used to be.’ He could not forget the anguish, even guilt, of the people whose houses remained intact. ‘I don’t understand why (we) were still here… I’m anxious all the time. I wake up every morning thinking it’s coming back.’

Not surprisingly, many people are still anxious. Psychiatrist Mark Cross admits that the timing of his recently released book, Anxiety, ‘couldn’t have been better, even though it was a dreadful thing to have happened and it’s affected the whole of our psyches.’

The more we see and read, the more we apparently want to see and read. Poems, essays, reports, amazing pictures. The NSW Writers’ Centre ran a story on ‘catastrophe writing’ and Varuna writing house is offering fellowships for what it calls, ‘writing fire, writing drought’ (because, of course, we are still not over the effects of that).

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has tried to claw back credibility after his distressingly poor early responses to the bushfires. After his euphemistic ‘black summer of 2019-2020’, his patriotic battle cry has urged that we tackle climate change with a new ‘responsiveness, resilience and reinvigorated focus on adaptation’.

During an exceptional Q+A on the bushfires, National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan  said ‘it is not OK to be OK when you have lived through trauma for which it is impossible to find the words to describe’. I did a double-take. Had I heard her correctly?

She explained that it is impossible to go through these experiences ‘without being absolutely whacked when it comes to emotional wellbeing and physical wellbeing’.

NSW Minister for Transport, Andrew Constance, and MP for one of the worst-affected areas Bega, personified this heartache, for himself, his immediate community and his nation. He admitted to lying awake at night going over and over events. It was etched on his ashen face. He has not been afraid to say he was having counselling and on the 10th of March, he announced that he will leave state politics once the bushfire recovery is over.

This all reminded me of resilience training I had about a year ago, and just after my wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Being your best self over 50 was described as a ‘resilience training program for the older and wiser’. Devised by Monique Crane, an organisational psychologist at Macquarie University, through self-awareness, reflection and evaluation exercises, the ‘stressors’ of life, such as illness, financial hardship and bushfires, can go on to become the basis for coping with them.

I was one of 55 general members of the community to participate. We had to choose our core values from an admirable list. We completed weekly self-refection forms, had informal calls with counsellors and were encouraged to look at what we were thinking, how we were behaving and how our feelings influenced our ability to maintain our stated core values and goals.

I aimed to understand the situation as best I could. I talked to doctors and nurses, read up on the cancer, talked constantly with my wife, went to the hospital with her, walked a lot, fell asleep in front of the television (even more than usual). I added such things as singing in the hospital choir and doing online shopping but generally, the idea was to normalise the situation, not exceptionalise it.

The research team concluded that the self-reflection training helped to reduce perceived stress, increase our feeling of ‘positive emotions... confidence in coping’ and overall, increase ‘the belief that stressors can be enhancing and beneficial’.

We were moving on. We gave meaning to resilience.

Similarly, the Green Building Council of Australia CEO, Davina Rooney wants to give ‘meaning to resilience to shape and create more resilient communities to provide… more climate-appropriate buildings’.

We await to see how measures such as the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, the Royal Commission into Bushfires pan out. We’re now in the realm of medical responses and the government’s economic stimulus package. The Prime Minister hopes, ‘when the recovery comes… we are well positioned to bounce back strongly’. To show resilience in action.

Rarely has trust been more important.



Deborah SingermanDeborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing and proofreading business. She focuses on diverse voices, ideas, workplaces and makers, contributing features and blogs to architecture and design, humanities, urban environment and cultural online and print publications.

Main image: A stylised Australia builds house in face of fire, floods and COVID-19. Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Deborah Singerman, bushfires, COVID-19, resilience



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Existing comments

'the belief that stressors can be enhancing and beneficial': it's a journey and not a comfortable one. Over the weekend, I read a poem written by John Kinsella about his connection to dead poet Emily Bronte. He has been writing 'Emily' poems since he was eighteen, over a period of thirty-seven years. For a significant number of people the bushfires' legacy will continue and perhaps this can be construed as beneficial in many ways.

Pam | 16 March 2020  

An intelligent article summing up both the events of the last months, and the prevailing feelings they are giving rise to - and pointing a cautious way forwards towards hope, and trust. Thank you, Deborah.

Denise O'Hagan | 24 March 2020  

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