Dr Janaka Jayawickrama is an Associate Professor in Community Wellbeing in the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, UK.He is a social anthropologist, and has worked within and between academia, policy and practice in disasters, conflicts and uneven development. He has played key roles in various humanitarian responses including tsunami responses in Sri Lanka (2004), internally displaced people in Western Darfur, Sudan (2005 – 2006), Afghan refugees in Pakistan (2006), refugees in Malawi (2006), Iraqi refugees in Jordan (2007- 2008) and Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq (2017 – ongoing). Dr Janaka continues to advise the UN and International Agencies on humanitarian affairs. His pioneering work on concepts of care and wellbeing has influenced the policy and practice of the global humanitarian and development intervention discourse.
Through my experiences of working with disaster and crisis affected communities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East over the last 25-years, I am defining wellbeing as the individual’s ability to effectively engage with uncertainty and challenges of life.
When we look around, we realise that life is dangerous and uncertain. I am not just talking about disasters or big crises, but even in general and day-to-day life. Rising house bills, road accidents, broken relationships, sudden illnesses and job losses are reminding us how tentative our lives are. In this, communities in many societies have developed very sophisticated yet pragmatic approaches to deal with these uncertainties and dangers. Since the beginning of human civilisation, we have been dealing with all these challenges, so some of these approaches to wellbeing are time-tested and proven. Our religions, relationships, families, traditions and spiritualities are all part of this.
So, in my perspective, community wellbeing is a process that we deal with external life through our internal understandings of them and finding our abilities within.
The urban, especially big cities can be defined by fast-phase, resource heavy, individualistic and extremely busy lifestyles. I always find interesting to see that in big cities like London, people look very unhappy. They are too busy running, do not have time to even smile with each other. What we can generalise here are three things:
In this, one can live a very lonely and isolated life in the city, which has a major impact on their wellbeing.
When you are a medical professional or community worker, your aim is to help and care for affected individuals and communities. Not just in COVID -19 situation, but in any crisis, the caring professionals are also relatively helpless and powerless to save everyone. When you realise that, it can be a big shock. Even in this realisation, when you see a lot of suffering of your fellow humans and witnessing them dying is a huge mental challenge. These memories can trouble you even in the long-term. That is why it is important that the people who are in caring professions seriously needs to think about their own wellbeing.
In terms of the general public, it is the challenge of not knowing what to do. These days with internet and social media, we find many commentaries of situations without proper understanding. In these reactions in social media or internet can be very problematic. At the same time, social media can bring people together and build solidarity among affected people. As I mentioned before, realising how uncertain and dangerous our lives can be very discouraging. That is why after a major crisis, encouraging people to take control over their routines again can help.
In any crisis, the affected populations are the first responders. We generally think that the professional service providers make the first interventions, it is actually mothers, fathers, our neighbours and friends are the first responders. In most crisis situations, to recognise this and establishing collaborations between the affected community and professional services is what we need. The importance of this is that having a population that is willing to respond to a crisis in a positive manner help the professional assistance.
There can be many things that can be done to strengthen communities and future risk-reduction. However, in my perspective, education play a key role here. I am not just talking about formal school and university education but including the strong> informal and non-formal education about disasters and crises. When everyone understand that we all have a responsibility reduce risks, then we can effectively deal with crises. Further,the communities can own their risk reduction processes, which is very important in relation to mitigation of future crises.
I think that we are only focusing on the new scientific knowledge in dealing with crises. However, we sometimes forget, the ancient knowledge foundations such as Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine have much advanced interventions and practices. I think that the new knowledge and ancient knowledge needs to collaborate as equal partners, so that we can establish new knowledge that are relevant and effective in improving community wellbeing and health. In my research and practical work with crisis affected communities, I always try to bring the new scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge together, so we can develop new methodologies and frameworks. We need to remember that Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as ancient philosophies from many other civilisations can shed some light into contemporary challenges.
As an outsider who is looking at what is happening in China is through my readings. So, this is an outsider’s view. It is quite impressive that China is doing all what can be done in this juncture. Compared to previous crises like SARS, the response to this crisis is much more advanced and relevant. I do not think that anyone can plan 100% to prevent or respond to a crisis like this. What I see is the flexibility and willingness to learn from this experience, which is admirable. It is always unfortunate to see human suffering. These are times to gather the courage and patiently persist with the efforts to deal with this situation. We need solidarity and support for everyone that are suffering from this crisis.
In terms of future, we need to learn from this crisis and experiences of the responses. I think, when this crisis is over, China could establish this experience as a case study – not only from a scientific perspective, also from a social, cultural and environmental perspective. Chinese cities are growing, and urban wellbeing and health is becoming an important aspect in that. Further, I think that training future humanitarian professionals that suits the social, political, cultural, economic and environmental context and needs of China is a significant investment for future. Universities and higher education institutes within China should think about this.
As Confucius, one of the greatest Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period said, our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.