Barry Turner: The three stages of a crisis and how to get it wrong

Since last week the press and public have been outraged over a spectacular display of double standards and hypocrisy shown by the most powerful non-elected member of Boris Johnson’s government. They have been further dismayed by the feeble excuses of cabinet ministers working from a script for what they deep down know to have been inexcusable selfishness on the part of Mr Cummings, thinly disguised as parental concern.

Since there is no shortage of proper condemnation in the press for this fiasco, this article will spend no more time on moral opprobrium and concentrate instead on another issue instead. Is this outrage and dismay a symptom of a deeper and more complex malaise? Are we seeing the first signs of what disaster psychologists call the Disillusionment Phase in the human emotional response to catastrophes and tragedies?

On May 19 the Psychiatric Times published a story headlined ‘Dear Mental Health Innovators: The Covid-19 Honeymoon is Almost Over’. The scholarly article describes the different states of affairs that follow natural disasters and makes the point that while the disasters themselves are rarely predictable, the human response to them is eminently so. After so many disasters in the last 100 years and a scientific focus on their outcomes as well as origins, we do know how people respond to these events.

We have seen the first two phases of the response. The authors of the article describe the first manifestation as the Heroic Phase, this is characterised by high altruism and high activity. People pull toghter to the rallying cry and get behind the effort to deal with the crisis. People volunteer, give more to charity, feel a sense of community and responsibility. That phase now looks like it was a long time ago.

We have had so many shocks and let-downs that few feel heroic anymore. To resort to wartime analogies, people don’t want more medals or to be clapped in the streets, they want to go home, see loved ones, get back to work, indeed they just want to be normal.

According to the authors of the article, the next stage of human response is the Honeymoon Phase. This characterised the April-Early May stage of the lockdown. This phase involves high assistance, high bonding and high optimism. More volunteers, the windows of homes and offices decked out with rainbows drawn by children and more of the collective rallying around in a crisis, with appropriate social distancing of course. That phase is still partly with us, but a huge and ongoing scandal has propelled us now towards a far less edifying set of experiences.

The third stage of human response following a crisis is the Disillusionment Stage, and experience shows that it is by far the longest lasting of the stages. This is characterised by low optimism, high distress, high mental illness. The length of this stage of the human response is far less predictable than the first two and subject to other pressures, in this case the looming economic crisis that we know will follow the end of the pandemic and last for very long after it too.

The Heroic Phase is gone, the efforts of the government and NGOs to cheer us along is all but forgotten, or worse, still now looked back at with cynicism. The altruism is being replaced with ‘what do I care’ and a sense of betrayal because those who encouraged us and those who made the rules to protect us have flouted them. An unelected advisor apparently fully supported by the cabinet has broken the rules and added insult to injury by having no regret about doing so. One by one those who were elected for the very purpose of protecting the people of Great Britain have chosen to rally around him, rather than the people who now rightly call for him to go.

The Honeymoon Phase is now in tatters, the optimism gone, the bonding destroyed by a government who would rather bond with ‘advisors’ than with the people, and even it seems many of their colleagues on the back benches. We are now in the dark phase of disillusionment and we are here for a long time to come. The optimism we need to get our economy going again is falling victim to cynicism, anger, increased stress and a national ill health.

The World Economic Forum called this pandemic “the world’s biggest psychological experiment,” adding that we would be paying the price. The first of the many bills has just arrived. The WEF predict burnouts, economic stagnation and huge scale stress related sickness absences blighting the whole of 2020 and possibly well into next year. This added to the huge bill we have to pay for the direct costs of COVID-19 will cause huge disruption long after the virus is gone.

Governments face huge challenges riding out this long aftermath of COVID-19 and we have to ask the inevitable question about the capabilities of a government that seems entirely dependent on the ‘ideas’ of an unelected ideologue whose claim to fame is in hating politicians and the press and a disdain for ordinary people.

Tony Blair was irreparably damaged by the decision to involve the UK in the war in Iraq, an event also determined by advisors telling lies. Tony Blair also had no regrets and justified his actions as being “right at the time”. The public did not buy it. Boris Johnson would do well to look to Tony Blair, an ex-prime minister who is not remembered for his great achievements such as securing peace in Northern Ireland but for lying, scheming and threatening democracy and accountability by surrounding himself with grey eminences and ignoring the people of the UK in favour of self and others.

It took us no time at all to fall into COVID-19 lockdown. Extricating ourselves from it and avoiding the worst of the Disillusionment Stage requires far more political skill than Dominic Cummings has, and certainly far more trust than he is ever likely to have again.

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