From bushfires to the coronavirus, the transition from 2019 to 2020 has been one to forget. These crises have been and are very confronting and visible.
With the bushfires we saw raging fire storms, charred remains of homes and businesses lost, frightened communities and tourists seeking refuge on beaches and evacuations by navy ships, exhausted firefighters, injured or destroyed animals, and thick choking smoke haze.
The battle for face masks quickly moved from the need to help us breathe through the smoke, to preventing us from spreading coronavirus.
COVID-19 is not visible to the naked eye, but thanks to the constant media coverage, we all recognise what the dreaded virus looks like – that ugly sphere with trumpet-shaped spikes. This pandemic has created eery streets, empty restaurants and cafes, vacant hotels and venues, lonely stadiums, sports grounds and parks, stripped supermarket shelves, grounded planes and long winding queues for Centrelink.
This otherwise invisible virus is now very visible. What is not being seen though is the anxiety and depression that these crises are causing. Mental health is the invisible crisis that in my opinion is not getting enough attention.
I was brought up in a small family owned and operated tourism business in regional NSW – a glassblowing and engraving studio of all things. I know how hard it is to survive when the economy is going well, let alone being confronted with the impact of disasters. Juggling the need to provide for family essentials against budgeting for core overheads, marketing to attract sales and visitors, and reinvesting into the business were regular and stressful decisions in the Hiebl family household. They say cashflow is king, and it is. Without it, depression takes a hold.
On any normal given day, the destiny of your business is yours to create. But when the world as we know it is shutting down around us, outside of our control, often there is not much that can be done, and helplessness can set in.
I attended the Australian Chamber’s Tourism Recovery Summit in Batemans Bay on the south coast of NSW in March. We got to hear firsthand just how devastating the bushfires were for some. Those who did not shed tears during this meeting, sat uncomfortably with red watery eyes and lumps in their throats.
You see, traditional bushfires would typically build and run through in days, but this season saw some destinations threatened over weeks and months as fires grew and retreated several times, horribly taunting regional communities. This prolonged pressure and fear, dotted with multiple evacuation orders and significant loss, has no doubt left many with post-traumatic stress conditions.
These Black 2019-20 Fires stopped many of us travelling and closed regional tourism and related businesses in their high season – at a time when they earn most of their income to sustain their activities for the remainder of the year. From an international perspective, misinformation by global media portrayed an entire country on fire.
Once the fires and smoke cleared, we were all urged to visit these areas as tourists to spend up big in support of our fellow Australians. “Bring empty eskies” they said. Let’s move quickly to assist in recovery. This is one of the few times that the tourism industry was recognised as an economic driver by those in power.
But not everyone was ready. Not everyone had healed. Not every business was ready to open their doors, assuming they weren’t already permanently closed. Not all staff were ready to work and serve – some still caring for family and friends. No one was ready for ‘rubbernecker’ visitors travelling to see the damage and hurt of others.
It was great to see the Australian Government’s $76m mental health response to bushfire trauma, allowing up to 10 free mental health sessions for bushfire affected individuals, families and emergency services personnel. But the disconnect between the need and availability of qualified practitioners saw waiting times of up to 3 months. Certainly not immediate and as required.
Throughout March, the Government escalated its response to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives on advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. Daily, our beloved business events industry was being progressively shut down. In under two weeks, we moved from a recommendation advising against non-essential gatherings of persons of 500 people or more, to essentially banning all gatherings and non-essential travel by closing national and state/territory borders.
As reported by the Business Events Council of Australia, $2.5 billion is being lost in the business events shutdown, with operator revenues now at zero.
With uncertainty all around us, and as cashflow grinds to a halt, please remember that with every business event cancelled, with every employee being stood down, with every business being closed, there are people and families being impacted. Those that are having to make difficult decisions are people too and will be bearing the weight of these decisions.
The understanding of mental health impacts has certainly grown over the past decade, but it is still an uncomfortable subject. Let’s learn from other industries like agriculture that when things get tough, your tribe will be there for you. We don’t want the invisibility of mental health to take more lives than the pandemic itself.
Stay connected. Reach out to colleagues. Call those that are now out of work. We need to remain the tight knit community that the business events industry is recognised to be. Together, we can support each other through this difficult period to the point where our industry rallies bigger and better than ever before.
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