Revisiting the Pandemic: Lessons Learned for Future Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness

Blog post 2 of 5 in the series, “Military Family Readiness During and After COVID-19

by Karen Shirer, Ph.D.

Karen Shirer PhDThe pandemic began over a year ago and continues to rage globally. When Military Family Service Providers (MFSP) were asked during the Military Family Readiness Academy (MFRA) Preparing for Disaster During A Pandemic* webinar what issues military families faced during the pandemic, they responded:

Daycare for service members

Many parents cannot help their children with school work

Lack of food and limited food supply for low-income families

Domestic violence

Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE)

Inability to access natural supports

Crisis lines overwhelmed

A lot of people are just tired, mentally and physically

These comments reflect just a handful of responses among many to the question on military families’ challenges during the pandemic. Many of these responses were given by more than one person.

Other themes from the chat responses centered on the challenges MFSPs experienced delivering services during the pandemic. We will look at this area in depth in blog post #4 — look for it in two weeks.

The chat responses show that the pandemic became a slow-burn disaster going through multiple peaks of rising and declining COVID cases and deaths. The ongoing pandemic has caused stress for military families and MFSPs alike.

The pandemic, as a slow-burn disaster, is occurring alongside other short-burn events, like hurricanes and wildfires (Tidball, 2020). More and more scientists predict we will see more pandemics and weather-related disasters in the future due to long-term changes in the earth’s climate.

We learned in the first blog post that:

    • Pandemics follow phases: 1) disease onset and initial spread; 2) surge in cases and deaths until they peak when public health and health care measures take effect; and 3) finally a decrease in cases and deaths. Phases two and three often repeat themselves two or more times before the pandemic is under control.
    • The pandemic has increased military families’ stress levels, especially for those PCSing, deploying or caring for children and vulnerable adults.
    • All stress is not alike — there are two major kinds of stress that military families experience: acute stress and chronic stress.
    • Short-term and long-term events both cause acute stress and may lead to chronic stress and mental and physical health concerns

As a result, military family readiness may be undermined during hazards and disasters. We all experienced the first phase of COVID-19 in 2020 and although we are no longer in this phase, there are important lessons that we can learn for future disaster preparedness and military family readiness. This second blog post builds on the first blog post by:

    1. Providing more detail on an “all-hazards” approach to disaster preparedness that reduces or prevents acute stress
    2. Applying a family resilience framework for working with military families to prevent acute stress and promote resilience during the initial phase of disasters, including pandemics.

What is “all-hazard preparedness” and what does it look like in practice during a pandemic?

With an emphasis on planning and growth, the Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best course provides valuable information to MFSPs on helping military families with the planning necessary for simultaneous and multiple disasters.

All-hazards disaster preparedness develops the mindset and capacity of responding to all potential hazards and disasters that might occur. This approach:

    • Lessens the negative impacts no matter what the hazard or disaster, or if there are co-occurring disasters
    • Involves creating written plans and disaster kits for managing future disasters for where you live
    • Allows for the unique context in which military families live and work
    • Prepares individuals/families, organizations, governments, and communities to prepare for their physical spaces, mental health needs and financial security
    • Guides MFSPs to prepare for disaster with their own families and the organizations and communities in which they work

The Preparing for a Disaster during a Pandemic course shows how to apply this all-hazards preparedness approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unique challenges related to the pandemic have created limitations for preparing for other disasters. Because people need to physically distance, staying in a shelter becomes a challenge. Supply-chain issues related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and other items became problematic during the pandemic; these issues become even more problematic when there is another disaster at the same time.

Due to these challenges, the advice for disaster preparedness is “start early.” You want to encourage military families to prepare by planning ahead for their special and unique needs (like PCSing, caregiving or deploying) and for geographic areas with the potential for severe weather and wildfires.

All-hazard preparedness also means planning for the special needs service members and military families that you work with by preparing them for a disaster during the pandemic. When military families prepare their emergency kits and practice their plan, they need to consider their unique interests. Here are a list of groups discussed in the course:

    • Children have unique physical, developmental and social/emotional needs during a disaster. Their daily routine is disrupted and they need adults who can assure their safety and protection. We need to be especially aware of the needs of LBGTQ+ children and youth during disasters. The next blog post will go more in-depth on parenting during a disaster.
    • LBGTQ+ individuals (especially transgender) need support options that are safe and comfortable for them.
    • Older adults have increased risk factors, and will need sheltering options and support services, including accessible transportation and shelter options.
    • People with disabilities including those with mental health diagnoses need accommodation. You will want to advise those with service and comfort animals to have the proper certifications and multiple copies of paperwork in their emergency kits.

You can find additional information on disaster preparations and plans for people with special needs in the Preparing for a Disaster during a Pandemic course here.

Dr. Keith Tidball reminds us that we will likely be living with and navigating the pandemic challenges for a long time. He asks us to consider the impact hazards and disasters will have on our efforts to test, vaccinate and care for COVID patients at the same time. Power outages, blocked roads, disrupted emergency response, and closed pharmacies over an extended period of time are just a few of the possible challenges.

For more in-depth information on all-hazards preparedness see Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best- MFRA2020 Session 3. This MFRA course ties together multiple planning aspects of all-disaster preparedness involved in military family readiness from both military families’ and their service professional’s perspectives.

How do we plan for mental well-being and resilience in all-hazards preparedness?

In the first blog post and from the comments at the beginning of this blog post, we learned that military families have faced challenges during the pandemic. These challenges began at the onset of the pandemic when many of us experienced acute stress. We also have seen that chronic stress and mental health concerns have increased during the pandemic.

Nancy Beers in the Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best- MFRA2020 Session 3  course describes the need to plan and prepare for the mental health needs of those being impacted by a disaster, including the pandemic. This means that we need to consider and plan for how we ensure mental health before a disaster and/or pandemic occurs. Think of it as planning for family resilience when disaster strikes.

Now that we have passed phase one of the current pandemic, there are things that we can learn about helping families manage acute stress from future pandemics and other disasters. Dr. Judith Myers-Walls (2020) provides guidance on preventing or lessening acute stress for these future events in the form of research-based practices and information for supporting military families.

As we saw in blog post one, acute stress was a feature of the pandemic’s first phase. Acute stress:

    • Occurs when we face unforeseen or unplanned circumstances or events, like the pandemic
    • Builds on other planned stressful transitions that we may have anticipated
    • Causes feelings of being overwhelmed, uncomfortable and uncertain
    • Results from the belief that we lack the resources and means to cope with the circumstance
    • Is different from chronic stress and mental health challenges

Where do we begin in planning to prevent or minimize acute stress during the first phase of a disaster? Myers-Walls (2020) recommends that we use Dr. Froma Walsh’s family resilience approach as the basis for our planning and response.

In August 2019, Dr. Walsh led a webinar on Nurturing Family Resilience through a Strengths-Based Framework for the Military Family Learning Network. Dr. Walsh shared from her research that adverse experiences can lead to the development of strengths when certain conditions are met for the family. These necessary conditions include: a healthy belief system, family organizational processes, and sound communication processes. All three of these conditions can be supported by MFSPs in their work with military families on preparing for disaster:

    • A healthy belief system includes the ability to create meaning from the crisis or challenges; having a positive outlook, hope and accepting what can’t be controlled; and spiritual resources (e.g., a contemplative practice, a spiritual community, and connection and service to others).
    • Family organizational resources include flexibility to adapt to change, connectedness and mutual support among family members, and access to social, community and larger system resources.
    • Communication processes include clear information that consists of truthful and consistent messages, emotional sharing of both negative and positive feelings, and collaborative problem solving and proactive planning that includes both a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’.

Walsh’s family resilience model provides a sound basis for the goals, policies and programs that we put in place for disaster preparedness with military families. In this planning, we want to include strategies that help military families understand and strengthen their belief system, improve their family organizational processes, and build their communication skills.

Myers-Walls (2020) describes these best practices for MFSPs when working with military families on acute stress based on Walsh’s research:

    • Obtain the training and skills to plan and respond to acute stress during the first phase of a disaster. The purpose of the MFRA was specifically designed to meet this need. In addition, you might consider taking disaster mental health aid training or psychological first aid training.
    • Build the skills for caring for yourself in order to prevent burnout. Working with military families in the best of times can be stressful but in the midst of a pandemic or other disaster it has been even demanding and complex. A mindfulness practice or other stress reduction techniques are critical.
    • Be aware of your own professional expertise and the boundaries of your domain of practice. If you are an educator, you will need to refer families with severe problems to professional partners who are trained to help them. You will want to develop collaborations with mental health professionals before a disaster.
    • Monitor carefully your own consumption of news media and social media during a disaster. Experts have found that those who spend large amounts of time watching the news and monitoring social media tend to be more stressed. Myers-Walls (2020) said that it is important to manage our own media exposure and keep it at a moderate level both for ourselves and to better serve our clients.
    • Recognize that reuniting family members with each other is an urgent need early in a disaster in order to reduce acute stress. Early in the pandemic, connecting families became even more important due to the isolation caused by physical distancing. We can help families navigate technology challenges and suggest ways to make meaningful connections with family members and others in their social network.
    • Help military families learn skills and knowledge about acute stress and coping before a disaster strikes. The Military Family Learning Network and Military One Source have many resources that can assist you. Prepare one-page handouts and short social media messages on coping with acute stress before the disaster. This kind of preparation is an important part of disaster mental health preparedness.
    • Keep in mind that the acute stress during the first phase of disaster may inhibit a family member’s ability to process information. Classes and lengthy handouts will likely not be helpful. Instead, when working with military families, offer them a sense of safety; a calming presence; a sense that they can manage the events; connection with others; and hope. Your presence and engagement at this time are most critical.

In the MFLN webinar, Dr. Walsh gives in-depth practice principles, including those that will be highlighted in the next two blog posts. If you’d like to review the webinar resources please go here.

Key takeaways

An all-hazards preparedness approach to disasters, especially during a pandemic, is the best insurance for military family readiness. We also want to attend to and tailor our support to the specific needs of military families.

Acute stress that stems from an unexpected disaster or hazard can be reduced and possibly prevented by helping military families prepare ahead of time.

MFSPs play a unique role in supporting military families experiencing acute stress during a disaster by using a strengths-based family resilience approach.

In the final two blog posts for this series, additional strategies for supporting parents and children, caring for self, and navigating changes in MFSP’s work brought on by the pandemic will be discussed. Our focus will shift from planning to responding to disasters and helping military families to recover from the pandemic and other disasters.

Call to action

    • Watch for the next blog post in this series — Managing the Ups and Downs of the Pandemic: What We’ve Learned about Supporting Military Families and Parents.
    • Check out the sources used in this blog post— they are all hyperlinked within the blog post and listed below.
    • Review the courses and resources offered by the MFRA.
    • Connect with military families that you serve to learn more about their experiences with the pandemic and get suggestions of what would be helpful to them currently.
    • Share this blog post with your colleagues.

*Note: All 2020-2021 Military Family Readiness MFRA webinars on Disaster and Hazard Readiness have been made into courses and can be accessed here.

Here are most of the references and sources used to prepare this blog post. Most are hyperlinked within the blog post.

American Psychological Association. (2021). Disaster Mental Health Training. https://www.apa.org/practice/programs/dmhi/dmh-training/disaster-mental-health-training

C-CHANGE. (N.d.). Coronavirus and climate change. Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/

Military Family Research Academy. (2021). Preparing for Disaster During A Pandemic. Military Family Learning Network

Military Family Research Academy. (2021). Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best. Military Family Learning Network.

Myers-Walls. J. (2020). Family life education for families facing acute stress: Best practices and recommendations. Family Relations, 69(3), pp. 662-676. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12452

National Center for Traumatic Stress Training. (N.d.). Psychological First Aid (PFA) and Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR).  https://learn.nctsn.org/course/index.php?categoryid=11

Shirer, K. (2021).  Military family readiness during and after COVID-19. https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/2021/05/08/military-family-readiness-during-and-after-covid-19/

Walsh, F. (2019, August 22). Nurturing Family Resilience through a Strengths-Based Framework. Military Family Learning Network.

U.S. Geological Survey. (N.d.).  How can climate change affect natural disasters? U.S. Department of Interior.  https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-can-climate-change-affect-natural-disasters-1

 

Karen Shirer is a member of the Military Families Learning Network Family Transitions Team and previously the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.