VEZINA: How to learn from what disasters teach us – Tips & Results

After wars, pandemics, fires, floods, the question always arises: “Why haven’t we learned anything from the past?”

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Almost every time there is a disaster, we look back and find that lessons have not been learned or solutions have not been implemented.

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After wars, pandemics, fires, floods, the question always arises: “Why haven’t we learned anything from the past?”

There are at least six reasons for this, and there are things we can do to address each of them.

Reason 1: myopia

People and governments focus on the short-term and are generally bad at planning for the long-term.

It doesn’t help that society tempts us to make short-term decisions.

Why would people worry about a 20-year perspective when they’re worried about being able to pay that month’s rent?

When democracies have large percentages of high-risk people who are inevitably forced to think short-term, short-term planning becomes a political imperative and long-term planning difficult to justify.

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The best way to approach this is to find short-term benefits in long-term solutions. Start by planning a long-term goal and the things needed to achieve it, then find quick and easy achievements that will benefit people in the short-term.

Reason 2: optimism

When it comes to high-impact but low-frequency events, people tend to believe that it won’t happen to them.

People also tend to overestimate positive risks and underestimate negative risks.

For example, believing that they will win the lottery but not be involved in a car accident while texting and driving.

The concept “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind.

With our short attention spans and many people with this mindset, the only thing that really works here is a reality check or instilling fear.

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Disaster scenario exercises, case studies, exercises, and similar initiatives that simulate and respond to dire events can be helpful.

However, this can be risky. “Busting someone insane” can have serious negative mental health effects and needs to be done professionally. Even then, there is still some risk.

Reason 3: Inertia

We are generally resistant to change. The familiar is comfortable, the unknown can be frightening.

One way to approach this is to associate the change with something positive that people are familiar with.

For example, if a contingency plan for an emergency makes decision-making about how to respond faster and easier, it becomes much easier to justify the changes made.

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The aim is to find changes that are obviously good through what is already known.

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Reason 4: herding

Humans are social beings. We like to be part of something. Breaking out of the pack is difficult.

The way to go about this is to exploit another human trait: competitiveness.

If a risk solution can provide a competitive advantage to those who adopt it, people are much more likely to commit to it.

Reason 5: Simplification

Before a disaster, people generally only focus on the probability of its occurrence.

After a disaster, people tend to focus only on the aftermath.

Because immediate decisions are made to recover from disaster as soon as it occurs, methods to prevent it in the first place are often forgotten or ignored.

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Canadians, for example, are at far greater risk from poor watershed management than from political protests, which is easily forgotten in media coverage of political protests and government responses.

Before a natural disaster, the risks are immaterial, so people tend to underestimate the possible consequences.

For example, if their homes are destroyed after the disaster and they find that their insurance doesn’t cover the damage as much as they thought, the consequences will become clear, too late to do anything about it.

This is a complex problem, but one way to do it is to provide solutions to deal with future disasters that will give people peace of mind before the disaster strikes.

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Reason 6: amnesia

People just forget that bad things happen.

The solution is to constantly remind them that bad things can happen and happen again.

Do you remember SARS? Had we learned the lessons it taught us, we would have been much better prepared for COVID-19.

Now we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again before the next pandemic hits.

— Alex Vezina is CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. and teaches disaster and emergency management at York University. He can be reached at info@prepared.ca

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