The year was 2016. It was a period of high economic uncertainty in Alberta. During this time, there was a massive forest fire in the oil rich boom town of Fort McMurray which spread into an area of 590,000 hectares and caused the immediate displacement of 88,000 people. The fire happened all of sudden caused by abnormally dry spring conditions, human ignorance and a lack of proactive urgency from the provincial administration. It ushered in the perfect storm of unusually large proportions, never seen before in Canada.
Fort McMurray was my workplace for about 5 years and hence I was fortunate to be involved in the relief works that were staged in the capital city of Edmonton. The disaster was one of the largest forest fires that Canada had ever seen. Yet it was amazing to see how people came together and responded to the natural disaster in a magnanimous and honorable way. The people were evacuated safely from Fort McMurray in an orderly manner with zero causalities and located in Edmonton and Calgary aided by both public and private assistance.
I was fortunate to assist in one of the many relief centers as a volunteer. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. To see familiar faces wait in long lines in relief centers showed me how tragedy is a great educator. Many of my friends lost their homes to the fire and some couldn’t even return to the city where they lived from the trauma. However both the government and citizens of Alberta and Canada, through various acts of policy and charity ensured that the affected people from this great tragedy were cared for. This helped thousands to move on from the tragedy quickly.
If there is one thing that I have learnt from disaster is our response to it matters. Whenever disaster strikes, the first question we ask as human beings is – ‘Why?’ It is often a natural human tendency to blame someone over a disaster – either the government or humans etc. But when it strikes and you are in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t matter. Does it? The question of how do we survive becomes paramount now.
Human beings are built for survival. Charles Darwin explained human evolution as survival of the fittest. When we face danger, or feel stressed, the brain activates the hypothalamus which initiates chemical releases and nerve cell response to make us get ready; adrenaline is released, heart rate increases and blood pumped to our muscles and limbs making us alert and aggressive. Harvard university physiologist Walter Cannon in 1915 coined the term fight or flight response, i.e., a biological trigger that helps us decide whether to stay and combat or flee from danger.
When the Fort Mcmurray fire happened, instead of panic, the people evacuated themselves (or were helped) in an orderly manner despite the raging forest fires that approached closer and closer to the town. This magnified response by holding to your impulse and nerves during times of great danger, contrary to natural human design shows us what we are capable of as human beings if we put our heart to it.
Today the world is plagued by a new type of danger – a pandemic triggered by an unknown virus. We see countries shutting down, stock markets collapsing and fatalities increasing. We see an entire world affected and trying hard to contain the spread of this virus, accentuated by the modern comforts afforded to us from human travel and hyper-connectivity. I believe just like any other disaster, this one too shall pass. However what is going to make a difference even now is how we respond.
As humans, we are built to survive and defend our turf just like our forefathers, the original caveman once did. Images of empty shelves and stores, people fighting for toilet paper all reflect our natural human design. It is not easy to keep cool and believe nothing is happening. Some people try to move on as if nothing is happening or has happened. This is denial and it cannot be denied that we are in a period of deep uncertainty.
Leaders always get the blame for not preventing a crisis; for not having foreseen that something could go wrong. They will never be forgiven if the response is inadequate or weak. It is all about the response.
How we keep our cool during this period of uncertainty will help define the stories we would tell about this virus outbreak tomorrow. Simple steps such as personal hygiene and social distancing can help combat this outbreak. It is not difficult and is possible. Our response matters.unsplash-logoKelly Sikkema