If you want to destroy someone without lifting a finger, make them wait. Keep them believing that help will come. Farm their hope. Ensure there are no other options, but to wait. Then make them wait some more. Make them wait one day, and then two. Make them wait one week. A month. Three months. A year. Fifteen months. Send them a letter. No, don’t – that’s too personal. Have a press conference and release confusing information to update their waiting. Make them feel that they have progressed in the queue. Tell them it won’t be long now, just a bit more waiting.
Maybe tell them someone will contact them by mail. Then make them wait by the letterbox that, by the way, they no longer have, because it was destroyed. Which is a symptom of why they are waiting. Don’t send anything definitive. Ensure they know that while their frustration with waiting is recognised, that other people who also don’t have letterboxes are waiting too.
When the people waiting form groups of angry people who are sick of waiting, tell them to go see a social worker to support their mental health. Patronise them with some counselling. Guess what, you don’t have to wait for that. Therapists are in their car ready and on the way to placate you and send you back to your endless waiting. Don’t acknowledge that the source of their mental health decline is no longer the terrible thing that happened – it’s from waiting for the help that was promised.
Let them drift into this terrible grey sea of waiting until they become disoriented and scared, until they are swollen with misery and aloneness that goes deep to their core. Let them linger there until all hope is gone. When their spirits are so broken they’ll say yes to anything you offer, not to restore what was lost, but just to stop the waiting; then the waiting has won. They are broken.
This is bureaucratic torture. Those thousands of people in our communities who were inundated by floodwater have experienced something even worse now – they have been inundated by incompetence. They have been made to wait. While the NRRC conducts its first buybacks – of which there have been only a handful completed across three LGAs, others wait to be contacted to be told whether they are eligible for funding for a) retrofit, or b) house raising. They were told they would be contacted between April and 30 June. On writing this, it seems that no one in the Byron LGA has been contacted, possibly no one in any LGA. What they are waiting for is a phone call with an offer that says they have ‘indicitive eligibility for a retrofit/ houseraise’, which basically means ‘we know what you are waiting for and yes we realise you’re feeling shirty, but you’ll have to wait even longer for the confirmation of your actual eligibility. There is no date on that. So wait until 30 June to be confirmed for that next big wait’. While you do this waiting, the construction industry costs will skyrocket and insurance companies will screw you into destitution. Because the torture is working, now you’ll say yes to anything that’s offered, just to make this torment stop.
Waiting is associated with negative psychological and physiological responses such as anxiety and stress. More uncertainty and unexpected wait times aggravate the symptoms. I can’t imagine the duress of losing everything and then being triaged by a broken and inadequate bureaucracy. People can deal with loss. They can’t deal with this. People had support in the loss. The media sent helicopters to tell the story. You can’t send helicopters to capture footage of people waiting. It makes for boring TV. But rest assured, this is a crisis. And making flood-affected people wait does not just lack compassion; it is an outright hostile act.
In my opinion the problem is that responses have been triaged, a bit like an emergency room. There are thousands in there. And everyone in there is waiting. Understandably the most seriously impacted take more time. Buybacks are emotional, complex, difficult. They are the cardiac arrests in the emergency room.Meanwhile there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people needing a retrofit or a houseraise, who are basically just being offered a panadol. If they were given what they needed they could leave the emergency room. Leave their emergency housing and be back in their actual homes.
So let’s stop talking about the flood. That’s long gone. Let’s address the real elephant in the room. The second and most lethal wave of this disaster: the waiting.
If the flood didn’t crush you, the waiting might.