Reflections on Chch earthquake – no major loss or grief, super efficient handling of the situation and overflow of information may create new patterns of physical, mental and social health issues worth monitoring #eqnz

We are entering the seventh day of the earthquake. Wanted to write
some notes on my reflections on unique features of this earthquake and
its implications for long term health.

All over the week, we went through an unbelievable counts of jolts,
bolts, shocks, tremors, shakes, quakes, you name it. It started with a
7.1 shocker on a Saturday morning and then repeated bouts of 5
pointers jolted us out of our senses of balance. While we all
survived, the power got restored superfast and information started
flowing from all direction, and internet services and cell phones
started functioning like nothing happened, this was a peculiar
combinaiton one does not associate with a major disaster of the scale
that Chch witnessed. Informaiton eventually got us into a state of
apprehension that something else was on the way. Information poured
over from all sources that another 6 pointer was on the way. Whether
it comes or not, the psychological aniticipation of suffering another
jolt (a big jolt) played on the mind. Everytime a jolt/tremor ripped
our confidence to maintain the balance and raise heartbeats, the mind
started guessing, is it the six pointer we were waiting for? Then it
was easy to ask your neighbour across the city on a cellphone or a
connected device or on the computer. The city became narrow, there
were more conversations flowing, and all of a sudden, this
asynchronicity of conversations and flow of information could
potentially add to a new set of problems that may be on the way. Hold
on. Something like this never happened before in any natural disaster
situation. The last one we remember happened in Haiti (earthquake), or
floods in Pakistan (floods do not provide that opportunity of free
communication sitting on a dry ground and sending stuff at the scale
of communication we have experienced in Christchurch, the situation
would not permit it, be it Pakistan or any other place for that
matter). Electricity with water is too dangerous a combination for
mass production of messages through connected computers and cell
phones.

The absence of major loss (of life or structural damage such that the
nation and the world grieves) and flo, super efficient handling of the
situation to protect lives, and near perfect maintance of the flow of
informaiton by the authoritiees must be commended. But at the same
time, one cannot escape discussion of the impact of this unique
situation. This almost unnatural situation about a massive natural
disaster blunted its perceived significance (have you heard major
international leaders professed grief and shock over this earthquake?)
but at the same time, it also created a unique opportuity to study the
health effects of this earthquake on individuals and families that
need to be focused on in the weeks to years to come. I’d like to write
some initial impressions. What is the role of super efficiency in
modifying human health conditions in times of a disaster like this?

Many of us played games of speculation in virtual environments such as
twitter (Twitter happens to be the only one of the status update based
social networking channels I followed. The other was Facebook). Now, I
do not trivialize this. This was an easy game to play. One could check
scores on the Geonet site
(http://www.geonet.org.nz/earthquake/quakes/recent_quakes.html), and a
game fuelled by information of something was on the way, can we
predict it?

Information had power. Information was dirsuptive. It disabled
prediction of health implications.

I found a few unique patterns in this earthquake I’d like to reflect
on. There are several firsts worth pondering

1. This is perhaps the first earthquake in the history of humanity
where in spite of a major earthquake or superquake, not a single life
was lost (more on this later). Not only not a single life lost, there
was no major loss to a national monumental structure, or something
that could lead to major collective national level grief (I am not
talking here about loss of houses and livelihoods — these are
significant events, but I am trying to write about issues such as loss
of hundreds of thousands of people, think Haiti, 230, 000 lives lost)

2. This is also perhaps the first eathquake or a major natural
disaster to strike in the post information era of matured social
networking and web 2.0 environment. This is where the role of citizen
journalism, social networking and online citizen journalism in a post
information era became so prominent. Think about this. People tweeted
about their experiences while sliding under the tables even as the
quake struck, and thereafter streams of tweets and facebook updates
appeared in the sites. Universitites opened up facebook pages, people
set up workgroups through these media. The power of information was
evident. Information travelled fast, rumors arose and got killed
superfast, this was probably the first ever earthquake in the age of
information where asynchronous information played a huge role.

People survived.

What are implications? In other earthquakes with major loss of human
lives, destruction of structures and naitonal grief becomes such
overpowering stimuli, that after shocks or their intensity and their
impact on human mind and emotions pale in comparison. On the other
hand, pourng over the hundreds of messages across the social networks
and talking to people one feels that over everything else, it is the
intensity of the aftershocks and their relative impacts on human mind
became an overarchng theme of the earthquake. People would remember
this earthquake not just because of the initial shock, but for the
fact that over the next week, we went through hundreds of aftershocks.
Don’t they always happen? Then what fades the memory of the other
ones? Is major grief a dampening effect on personal psychosocial
reactions? There was no outpouring of grief but there was something
different. A series of private, personal emotional instability
unfolded over days and perhaps may continue. As people would continue
to monitor states of mind and health over the next few years following
this earthquake these are some issues worth in mind. The issues around
how social media and connectivity would modify risk pereption of
earthquake, how it’d act as a therapeutic ploy, and how as opposed to
large,societal grief pouring from all sections of the society, you’d
have almost micro level personal individual instability and patttens
of mental health issues and physical health related issues may unfold
over the next few months to years. This has been unprecedented and
probably needs to be studied carefully. This is a pattern that has
been unique with _this_ earthquake. It may never happen elsewhere
(certainly in not some unfortunate developing countries where major
grief and loss of life will still likely to be overpowering). But this
earthquake in spite of its uniqueness has some important lessons for
earthquakes that may happen in sparsely poopulated developed first
world countries where infrastructure may help averting major losses
and restore power and information flow. The problems will be different
then. The state of anxeity and fear from the flow of nformation and
outpouring of personal reactions will be points to be watched. Unique
and different. What are their health impacts? How does this underlyng
pervasive anxiety translate into physical, mental, emotional and
social health issues? This needs to be studied over time.

Paradoxically, major griefs and chaos might be more predictable in
terms of what goes on post earthquake. Here the health effects will be
more subtle and need to be very carefully evaluated. Already some
patterns started emerging right after the quakes, the household
violence climbed dramatically, the underlying jitter or irritation
should give way to longer term problems.

The price of development and super effiiciency I guess. Points to
watch out for all public health professionals and field
epidemiologists.

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