Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Australia's bushfire emergency 'like world war three'

I've been glued to the news for days, restless, easily distracted, feeling helpless. I want to stay informed but at times, it's too much.

A bloke on the south coast of New South Wales summed it up on Sunday night. ‘It was like world war three’. With rising anxiety, the threat of losing the lot, blackened daytime skies and scared small children wearing masks and adults holding their breath, it was. The enemy, fire, has been acting for months but the last few days have been truly frightening.

These are difficult times, hours that have challenged and tested the very rhythm of everyday life - at a time of year when most of us are on holiday, usually snatching time for rest and play.

These days have demanded leaders with empathy, respect and wisdom.

Monday, exactly twelve days after Christmas is known as the Epiphany. It remembers the journey of the Magi - the three wise men - to Bethlehem.

Many of us have had our own very personal epiphanies this season; searing experiences that have moved the ground from under us. Australia feels like a different place. It's all so surreal.

Among many stories of courage and loss is a collective epiphany about our fragility living on the driest and most flammable continent; about our vulnerability in the face of not just fire but shocking and persistent smoke that burns the eyes, triggers headaches and numbs our lungs. You don't appreciate good air until it's gone.

Might Scott Morrison have had his own epiphany?

After his ill-judged Hawaii holiday and a slow start, he has committed large sums to rebuild devastated communities but there has been little or no discussion of what's needed to prevent further loss of health and life, moving climate health into the mainstream.

Will he now recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change? Truths he has struggled to own or found uncomfortable have become undeniable. As we’ve heard for years, if governments at all levels don’t act, the costs of acting later will be much greater. Hope of action with an epiphany will rely on distancing himself from his mining mates.

Morrison, I get, is not the fall guy. The disaster has been a generation in the making and the entire system, the way our democracy has worked against the collective interest, is a big part of the problem.

Public anger has been palpable.

But it would have been nice to have heard and seen humility at the outset -- 'I hear you, I feel for you, I will work with you' Maybe even, 'Sorry, I was wrong'.

Poor leadership is the kind that denies what is happening to people until it’s too late, it runs over them. Good leadership anticipates change, shares information generously and empowers people to take control of what they can.

As victims of these fires describe war-like conditions, is it too much to hope for what often happens in war — an emergency response that transcends political divides?

We need a federal government that is less about winning but one that values our democracy and understands our deep interdependence with the environment and each other.

The fires have also been a powerful reminder that we rely on each other.

It's shown that we are stronger together.

Friends living near Braidwood in New South Wales would not have had their house saved without the stoic volunteer work of fire fighters and the shelter of others’ homes to ride out their fears. Fire fighters can't do it without the support of their families and the generosity of those offering care between shifts. Donations flowing towards bushfire relief have been phenomenal.

Social media has connected us to vital information, been a lifeline to many, and offered a place to vent (whatever etiquette there was on Twitter disappeared in recent days). But the web-world has also contributed to a long and regretful trend that has hollowed out volunteerism, reduced our membership to real world and inter-generational groups from unions to school and parent groups defined by a spirit to give for a greater good. The trend has contributed to high levels of disconnection, loneliness and sadness.

Expressing rage on Twitter about the political class or clicking on an online petition without actual commitment or sacrifice only takes us so far.

The not-for-profit groups that we do have need more of us to work for the change we want to see, to make our communities safer, happier and fairer, to reboot our democracy. I have heard of a rush of applications from grateful people, seeking to join the Rural Fire Service, which is heartening.

Still charity and volunteerism is only part of the picture. It can be a proxy for people in power to avoid their responsibility. The mantra of conservative politics - smaller government, fewer services, individual responsibility - diminishes the responsibilities of the Commonwealth, and denies the importance of strong public everything. Good public health, challenged during heavy bushfire smoke, needs sustained effort at local and national level to ensure a quality of life for all citizens regardless of their wealth.

Natural disasters magnify existing social problems and inequalities.

As with earlier bushfire disasters including in Canberra in 2003, it is people already living with disadvantage who will suffer the most.

Study after study has shown that the capacity of households to recover from natural disasters is closely linked to its financial situation and access to resources including employment, healthcare, social support, legal rights and education.

It's up to us and our governments to ensure the gap between the haves and have nots does not widen and that we can we all grow the resilience we need for the challenging hours, days and years ahead.