What's Tony Thinking

The Phases of Disaster


I heard from a friend the other day who wrote, “I am ready for this pandemic to be over!” My no-doubt helpful pastoral response, “Who isn’t?”

A week ago Sunday, September 13, marked 6 months since the U.S. officially declared the COVID pandemic a national emergency. Alas, there’s no end in sight.

Two folks at the Wheaton College “Humanitarian Disaster Institute,” Jamie Aten and Kent Annan, had a piece the other day at the Religious News Service. in which they outlined what has been learned about the phases that people go through in a disaster. There’s part of me that is both weary and skeptical about our frequent resort to everything to “stages” or “phases.” That said, their description of phases was interesting and, as I look back, rang true.

The good news, I guess, is that there are stages, with the implication that no one stage lasts forever, things do move on. The bad news is that we are now in the stage called — “disillusionment.” One mark of which is that it feels as if it will go on for fricking ever. Moreover, the experts say, “The disillusionment phase tends to be characterized by discouragement and stress.” Gee, I hadn’t noticed any of that until now — had you?

Okay, so here’s a run-down of the stages or phases of disaster, just so we’ve can put a “done that” check mark by a few even if we can’t put a line through “COVID – 19 Pandemic” itself.

1. “Pre-disaster stage” I think that was when we began to hear about a huge city of millions of people that we’d never heard of before, named Wuhan, and something going on there that might have ominous implications for everyone else on planet Earth. Suddenly, there were a lot of scientists from places with impressive acronyms saying “this could be serious, folks.”

2. “Impact phase” this is when the thing first actually hits us or hits close to him. In our case, in western Washington, this was when we learned we were the nation’s first hot-spot. Time for panic-buying and fights over rolls of toilet paper. Rumors of, then real, shut-downs.

3. “Heroic phase,” was the time when there was huge focus on health care workers, doctors, hospitals and all those who were are heroes in this great sudden battle. We got reports from the front lines, tales of heroic action and compassion and we thanked people who looked like health care workers when we saw them on the streets.

4. “Honeymoon phase,” has to be the most unlikely of the phase names. But it’s the stretch when we thought if we all just get with the program and do what we’re supposed to do, we can handle it and overcome the threat in short order. We also got busy in our newly constrained state planting “victory gardens,” making masks, learning a new craft or reading War and Peace.

5. Alas “heroic” and “honeymoon” give way to, you guessed it, “disillusionment.” Just the other day I was reading of people whose victory gardens had produced next to nothing, people who had lost their taste for baking bread and enthusiasm for needlepoint, and War and Peace was back on the shelf where it had rested comfortably since college. Disillusionment means we feel like “this will never end,” but . . .

6. good news, it won’t, I mean, it will, end that is. It won’t last forever. It just feels that way. Disillusionment, we are reassured, will give way to something called the “reconstruction phase.” We adjust to a new normal. We work through grief and pain. We adapt. We, slowly, perhaps very slowly, begin to put things back together.

While lots of this rings true, it somehow misses a not insignificant part of the whole experience, the one where lots of people think the whole thing is a hoax or pile of crap or way to get our guns away from us. What about that? Seriously, since for some people that phase has never ended, as least as far as I can tell.

Like many counseling us these days, Aten and Annan, remind us this isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. “Regardless,” they write, “understanding where we are and what is next helps us to remind ourselves again that COVID-19 is a marathon. We will likely be in the disillusionment phase for some time to come and reconstruction phase even longer.” Oh boy!

The same day I read this piece from the Wheaton College folks there was also a piece in the NYT in which a physician, Aaron E. Carroll, warned us to stop expecting life to go back to normal next year. Carroll also used the sprint/ marathon bit. But in his concluding line he cleverly reminded us of something important. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Both, though, require running.”

So I’d like to declare a moratorium on “this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon” metaphor. Nothing worse than a metaphor that’s done its work. Okay, we’ve got it. And with that, time to get my running shoes on. Oh no, I can’t go running. It’s too smoky. Well, that’s another disaster. Welcome to a new, grim time: disaster multi-tasking.




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