When the Dust Settles

Professor Lucy Easthope is the country’s leading emergency planner/disaster expert. When the Dust Settles Stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster was published by Hodder and Stoughton in April 2022.

Lucy Easthope’s 2022 book.

I was lucky to meet Lucy online during the start of the pandemic, which then resulted in meeting up when lockdown restrictions allowed. I now count Lucy as a trusted friend and mentor. Lucy’s work and calm resolve has helped me to make sense of my anger and frustration at the war on dissent and the moralizing and stigma, but she has helped me personally more than she will ever know.

On Page 50 Lucy says: “As long as there were disasters, there would also be people heading out to help” (Easthope, 2022, p.50).

Lucy is one of those people. Of course we criminalized so much basic human behaviour that stopped so much mutual aid. Dr Rhiannon Firth gave a wonderful paper during the seminar event below about anarchy and mutual aid, drawing from work on disaster capitalism. She stated that if mutual aid is discursively recast as ‘social capital’ then only sections of ‘civil society’ that are palatable to the state and which it can capitalize on and control are seen as acceptable. Dr Firth continues to state that other social forces are a threat to be controlled and criminalized. 

Event at University of Essex, Jan 2022.

Lucy calls the Coronavirus Act 2020 ‘bad law’ and I completely agree. The restrictions and penalties exacerbated existing social inequalities as I argue here.

Lucy speaks about the “domino effect”, that “…Disasters don’t occur in isolation. They domino into other disasters. And, as they unfurl, they become entangled with the other challenges in our lives that would have occurred regardless” (Easthope, 2022, p. 264).

Whilst I am in the privileged position of living with my husband, dogs, and having a regular wage from a good job, lockdown terrified me. As a woman living with CPTSD I felt trapped and desperate to escape. My heart broke daily for the women and children locked up with their abusers. I light candles for those children murdered during this period and those who died alone unable to have any comfort from loved ones.

I knew I would gorge on this book so I saved it for Easter break, knowing that the book would consume me. And it has. It is emotionally grueling at times, yet the author’s calm resolve will help you to deal with death and uncertainty.

I have written in several places about my unhappiness with the lack of systems-thinking during the pandemic, and Chapter 16 The End explains Lucy’s role as advisor to the cabinet before and during the pandemic. Lucy has lived it. She is the expert. This is no academic theorizing. Lucy walks the walk. This chapter was eerily comforting as it confirmed much of my gut-instinct as a complete non expert but as a Dyslexic thinker who holds competing concerns in tension and wants nuance.

Lucy states “We and our children have been framed as vectors of disease. I wish we could have found a way to have kept shame, stigma and threat out of public health messaging. I hope that soon, we can find a way to reach back to each other again, without the fear” (Easthope, 2022, p. 270).

As a criminologist who has spent 20 years around the sex industry, and had lived and professional experience of stigma, I knew that shame, stigma and demonization should have no place in public health messaging. With NHS psychiatrist Dr Rob Freudenthal, we designed the health/power/criminality-nexus to try and make sense of what was going on.

Lucy also writes: “For me, one of the most troubling aspects of the point we have reached is that our response has been so anti-human” (Easthope, 2022, p. 270).

As Lucy explains, this has killed people. Those who were vulnerable and frightened of seeking medical help. We know from the growing data and literature how many collateral deaths and harms have been caused.

It did not need to be this way. My heart goes out to Lucy (and other emergency planners) who have watched a lifetime’s work of readiness being ignored and dismissed. I cannot imagine how frustrating and distressing that must have been.

Writing this blog on Easter Sunday, this steadfast witness reminds me of the women who waited at the tomb. In my Easter 2019 post I wrote:

“The gospel of St. John 20.1-18 tells us the story, and we imagine it almost in real time. A frazzled and faithful Mary Magdalene running to exclaim that the Lord’s body has been taken. Mary just wants the body back. Anyone who has suffered loss knows the desperate feeling of wanting to be close to what you have left of that person, their body, their shell, and to be able to treat them honourably, to ‘do them proud’, to lay them to rest”.

None of this is without connection to me. Throughout the book, Lucy speaks about the importance of doing right be the dead. Honouring them.

In Chapter Two Bad Stars, Lucy writes: “But perhaps it is also true that the human spirit needs to draw a line, to find a way to let the bones and the bodies rest” (Easthope, 2022, p. 43).

Rituals and passages of death are integral for grieving. We should never have stopped them.

Lucy later writes: “…That perhaps the greatest honour for those who died is to live for them. To keep their stories alive by including them in yours” (Easthope, 2022, p. 162).

Rev. Anna Blaedel writes in Enfleshed:

Image from Enfleshed account on Facebook.

I was struck with the rawness and generosity with which Lucy shares personal losses of babies. This will no doubt help so many grieving parents. Lucy addresses grief and loss more broadly, interwoven through each of the chapters’ case studies. In life we will know death. We will also know pleasure, joy and hope. This is our humanity.

Dante Stewart writes an essay on James Baldwin here. “In Baldwin’s spirit, the faithful knows that this moment of life is brief, and that death is as sure as the morning, and that what awaits us at the end of those words is that present and defiant joy that is heard in the words of Jesus: I have come that they may have life and life to the full.

Readers of my blog will know that one of my brothers died from Sudden Adult Death aged 34 years old in 2009. My alcoholic father died aged 62 years old when I was 18. I have known many losses, and like Lucy, I am very comfortable with death and dying. It is through sitting with death that we can truly live. I am grateful for every day of my life.

I have had some very moving moments during the pandemic. With loved ones, with acquaintances and with strangers. I am hesitant to share many due to the ethics of sharing stories that are not my own. But many involve human touch. I held the hand of a man who was street-drinking in the height of the pandemic. He has collapsed on the floor and his girlfriend was incredibly distressed. When he came round, I gave him a can of Dr Pepper out my boot (it was all I had!) and his girlfriend explained he had a heart condition. In that one moment, sitting on the floor in Birkenhead, I encountered both my brother and my dad. I encountered the poverty and addiction and isolation and inequality that has blighted so many of our lives.

It is no secret that i have felt very disappointed with the response of the church during the pandemic. This is not a slight of the clergy I know and/or follow online, but rather the broader strategy. Churches, in particular cathedrals, could have opened before they did. They could have offered outdoor distanced services and beacons of hope for those who needed a pressure valve. Many isolated people felt completely abandoned.

I felt emotional on Good Friday, the first Easter event I had attended in person since 2019. A lady sat next to me and we chatted about our frustration and about loss. She silently cried during part of the service. I patted her arm in comfort. She reached and held my hand. People need people. This is humanity. This is fellowship. I will likely never see that lady again, but in that moment she needed touch.

Whilst online video tools such as Zoom and Teams can be great for connecting the housebound or those unable to attend for multiple reasons, many of us need in-person contact. This is not Black Mirror.

I have had many encounters that have deeply changed me during the pandemic. Lucy speaks of the concept of hiraeth, a deep longing to return to a place to which you no longer can. I feel this in multiple ways. I am not the person I was before the pandemic, and I guess few of us are.

This book will help others. It is like a trusted friend recounting their life stories to you. We should be grateful to have someone with this strength, vulnerability and experience willing to share how disaster works with us. We must never again let grifters hijack a pandemic or other life-changing event. We must have inter-disciplinary systems-thinking to account for the messiness of the issue. We must be honest with citizens that whilst we can mange the impact of disasters, we cannot prevent all of them. They are happening all around us, we are simply unaware.

I am buying copies of this book for many of my loved ones, and I recommend you get a copy. It will change your thinking on the last 2 years and prepare you for future disasters.

In joy,

Gemma x