COVID-19:  Battling on after the bushfires

Woman with long blonde hair
Kirsty Jagger

After a disaster, like the recent bushfires, we tend to want to gather; to get through it together. We feel united by our shared experiences. We want to share our stories with people who understand. We want to know that we’re not alone.

This period of community fusion is an important part of the recovery process. That’s why a lot of value is placed on in-person recovery initiatives. Community recovery meetings. Community recovery centres. Community recovery outreach. It’s all on the ground, face-to-face.

COVID-19 interrupted this process.

Kirsty Jagger is the Senior Communications Officer, Resilience & Recovery at Resilience NSW, Department of Premier and Cabinet. She was working on the bushfire recovery effort when the virus arrived in Australia.

“The things we would normally do in-person were no longer possible as social distancing restrictions became stricter. A lot of things we would do on the ground needed to move online,” Ms Jagger said.

“And this move into the virtual coincided with the news cycle changing its focus too.”

“The Black Summer Bushfires (which actually started in winter) were like nothing we had ever seen before. Deservingly, they got a huge amount of media coverage, at home and around the world. In fact, it felt like there was no other news for a few months.”

The effect of this, Ms Jagger believes, was to broaden our sense of ‘community’ as the world watched on.

“The sun was red. The sky was grey. Ash fell in our backyards and on our beaches. The air smelt of smoke. People on the way to work in Sydney CBD were wearing filtered face masks. That thing we thought ‘would never happen here’ suddenly felt a lot closer to home.”

“Photos and videos clogged our newsfeeds and spread across the globe, as a haze of smoke blanketed our nation’s cities and suburbs, reached New Zealand, could even be seen from space.”

“The enormous visibility of the Black Summer Bushfires saw hundreds of fundraisers established, donated goods were being trucked across the country, spontaneous volunteers mobilised.”

The news cycle has since moved on. Recovery work is a little less visible than response, plus there’s a new disaster to contend with.

“It’s understandable that some bushfire impacted communities may feel a little forgotten as the media turns its attention to COVID-19,” said Ms Jagger.

“But bushfire recovery practitioners have not moved on with the news cycle.”

“They understand that many of these communities are dealing with compounded trauma; first drought, then bushfires, in some places there were storms and floods, and now there’s the additional impacts of COVID-19.”

“They continue to provide and support amazing bushfire recovery work in these communities. That support just looks a little different these days.”

Keep it human. Or as human as possible.

Ms Jagger says the COVID situation has highlighted the importance of in-person communication.

“The reason recovery practitioners place so much value on in-person communications is because it meets the needs of impacted people. They are seeking real, human connection and searching for trusted sources of information.”

“The potential to create connection and build trust with people over the phone or in writing is limited,” said Ms Jagger, recommending the use of video communications, as they are the closest thing we have to in-person communication during this period of self-isolation and social-distancing.

Translate high-tech to low-fi.

“In bushfire recovery we’re often working in remote areas where telecommunications are problematic even at the best of times. That said, even if connection is perfect, video communications aren’t suited to everyone.”

“Just as you may have thought about moving your community recovery meeting out of the local town hall and onto a platform like Zoom, have a think about how you’re going to take that back offline for people who may not have access.”

“It may be as simple as putting flyers up at the local petrol station or supermarket – basically any of those essential services where there’s still foot traffic – that says: ‘We’re having a Facebook Live community recovery meeting every Tuesday at 7pm. A summary of the meeting will be available every Friday in our Mayor’s Column in the local newspaper’.”

“My hot tip is to let people know in advance how you plan to continue communicating and engaging with them, so they know where to look for information and when.”

Use a multi-channel approach

“Don’t get too caught up in the change to in-person communications. We’ve never before had so many alternatives to choose from.”

“Think about all the other existing channels and networks you have at your fingertips. You already know how to use them, you already resource them and, most importantly, your audience is already there. How can you improve them, maximise use of them?”

“We need to use a variety of channels to reach the different segments in our audience, just as we normally would.”

“If it doesn’t work, your audience will tell you – listen and refine.”

For those working in bushfire recovery, keep communicating.

Ms Jagger advises against waiting for: “some magical communications and engagement solution to land in your email inbox and solve all your problems. It’s not going to happen. Look at how you can improve use of your existing channels and networks.”

“Listen to your audience, learn from your experiences and share your learnings with others - we’re all in this together.”

The most important thing is that information is timely, accurate and locally relevant.

“Bushfire recovery information is competing with COVID-19 response information, but persist – it’s important that bushfire impacted communities don’t think that we’ve forgotten about them, because we haven’t.”

For everyone else, get ready

Over the past 12 months, Australia has experienced an unprecedented number of disasters. Drought. Bushfire. Storm. Flood. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, a global pandemic.

You think it will never happen to you, until it does. But the more prepared we are, the more resilient we become, the better our recovery will be.

Resilience NSW has created information to help individuals, councils, community service organisations and businesses Click to find out more Get Ready for a disaster

Kirsty Jagger completed a Bachelor of Arts at Southern Cross University in 2008.