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Complacency: an Illness

Three weeks ago, we highlighted the concerns of fishermen who had the unfortunate pleasure of experiencing disaster up close and personal. Their resultant cries and complaints once more highlighted the prevalence of a phenomenon that has been identified as “complacency”. The column also precipitated calls to the editor questioning the reasoning behind that column.

While it may be said by some that that column may have been unwarranted in its observations of procedures that relate to the fishermen’s plight, it must also be noted that this was not the first time that our observations of managerial procedures had raised the blood pressures of some. But those observations were warranted based on the situation that was observed.

One of the basic rules of journalism states that journalists and writers must at all times remain within an area of validity and truth when commenting on social issues that affects a society. This paper’s policy and its directive issued to its writers require that we all follow that basic rule.

In recent times, this country has been able to escape the ravages of disaster scenarios that have left other countries struggling to financially recover, and their people faced with the uphill task of rebuilding their lives and homes. I asked a doctor of psychology to define complacency, and whether it could be defined as an illness affecting society.

The psychologist responded and said that in their opinion that complacency could be considered an illness, as it was a phenomenon that was chronic in most societies. Complacency is prevalent in all societies regardless of their social and economic development, it effects are often hidden in the layers of the society’s class structure, and therefore at times, can be very difficult to treat.

The psychologist also said that in respect to disaster preparedness, countries whose disaster impact history is lower than others often develop an attitude that suggests that they see themselves as above harm, or living in what some may view as utopia.

An example of this kind of behaviour can be seen in countries that have lived with dormant volcanos for centuries, and have built large communities near the summit of some craters. In Columbia 1985, Nevado Del Ruiz, a volcano that lay dormant for more than 140 years, erupted and killed an estimated 25,000 people. With its present nearby population growth, an estimated 500,000 people now live at risk in its shadow.

Grenada, present day — Mount Saint Catherine, the youngest of five volcanos on the island, dormant for more than two centuries, home to millions of gallons of water in its crater lake, with the potential to devastate almost one third of the island.

Statistically, there is enough evidence to support that the majority of the population of the Caribbean have experienced some form of disaster at some point in their history. Suggesting that knowledge of natural hazards and their potential to completely change the face of society is well enshrined in their cultural development. However, there does not seem to be a readily recognised disaster preparedness culture that supports this information.

People still live near shore lines, cities continually expand in known threat areas, and governments still don’t allocate enough resources towards mitigation and preparedness. When government budgets are being reviewed, disaster preparedness falls low in priority. It took September 11 and almost 5,000 deaths to force the United States to completely revamp its emergency management protocols.

Within the past three months, 10 weather systems have been tracked across the Caribbean, with one passing over the island. And the passing of Tropical Storm Tomas suggests that Barbados is capable of being affected by a natural hazard.

However these occurrences, in the opinion of some, while seen as not being severe in their effect, still have not contributed to any significant change in the attitudes of the population towards being prepared for natural hazards.

Tropical Storm Isaac flooded Haiti, impacted and left thousands of still-recovering earthquake victims once more homeless. It then flooded the gulf states of the United States and ironically, brought an end to a drought that had been ravaging the same area for months. Farmers breathed a sigh of relief, but the flooded homes of the gulf states instantly brought back the memories of Hurricane Katrina.

In the face of this evidence, editors still receive phone calls suggesting that their reports are either biased or do not present a story of impartiality. But writers and social commentators can only comment on what is viewed as current behaviour of a society. If a society accepts the presumed view of the illness of complacency as a natural part of life, then change becomes even more difficult to achieve.

If a society accepts that change can only occur at a cost in human life or loss of physical infrastructure, then the resulting behaviour is one of minimising the importance of growth and inclusion in the society’s culture of a new behaviour.

The Caribbean is a complex growing society, reflecting some of the influences of a global multicultural community. However, the attitude of complacency in disaster preparedness is not peculiar to the Caribbean only. It can be seen in many countries where changes in attitudes are often precipitated by significant loss of life and millions of dollars in financial reconstruction.

Every day, a hazard leaves devastation in its path, and the fact that the devastation may only be experienced by a few does not change the statistical evidence of loss to those affected. Emergency managers, no matter where they are located or the hazards that they are charged with planning and responding to, need to recognise that their job is one of fluidity, exists in an environment of constant adjustment to the needs of a society and subject to the same criticisms and observations of the residents of that society.

My concern here is that what was presented a few days ago does not become a point of contention, that columnists spend their time only presenting negative arguments on a situation. We are part of the same society and therefore anything that impacts the society will also ultimately affect us. If the opinion of psychologists suggests that complacency is an illness, then we as the same society must find a solution, or cure for that illness, which does not know race, colour, social class, administrative or political position, or financial status. I do not wish to find that 2013 still does not yield a cure for this phenomena. According to “Dr. Rolex”, the disease of “Time Squandering” and “Complacency” has now reached epidemic proportions and mass graves are continuing to hold the bodies of the foolhardy.

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