Anger

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I am angry. I know it doesn’t feel appropriate to express such emotion during a time of crisis, but I can’t help it. I am also sad, sometimes in denial, and feel trapped in a time warp-having been grounded for four weeks now, and not knowing how long this will continue. As a psychotherapist, I am well aware that these are all signs of stress and mourning. We have given up things that are familiar and dear to us: dining out, school and university life, family gatherings, a sense of security and so much more. I am also surprised how well I and most people around me have adapted. My work team functions brilliantly, and everyone has gotten accustomed to virtual communication. We talk often and are at least as productive as we were when we met around a conference room table.

So why am I angry? I think it is time that we allow ourselves to express this emotion-not only the ones of anxiety, disorientation, and isolation. These feelings have been written about often, and the advice on all media platforms can provide comfort and solidarity. But where is the outrage? Last Sunday I saw a mental health colleague on Face the Nation say that we need to cool off when we are anxious and distract our brains. But what about a healthy dose of anger to counterbalance the anxiety? That can also be quite therapeutic.

I am angry because we had two months in which practically nothing happened. These were essential days, weeks, and months when we had learned about the novel coronavirus. It was time to prepare to get our house ready and to learn from China, and then from Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. We saw the makeshift hospitals in Wuhan going up in days-do you remember those pictures of the dozens and dozens of colorful cranes on an empty lot in Wuhan? Did our policy makers think that this would only be a Chinese phenomenon, and that as long as most planes were barred, we would be safe? This line of thinking reflects our general approach to the world these days. We can see how well it worked out.

I am angry because the policy-makers and agencies charged to keep us safe, plan ahead, and intervene early failed us. They claim they did not have enough funding, which is obviously a big issue, but this recent financial bailout shows the power of the government to respond in a crisis. It only takes a small group of intelligent, committed, and honest people to foresee disaster, alert the public, and take necessary steps on day one. We knew in January that we had a potential disaster on our hands. Now we are learning that those few alarm bells that were raised were ignored and even suppressed-not only at the federal level. I am sure people will tell us that everything possible was done, one could not anticipate the magnitude of this problem, and so on, but any alert citizen knows that is not the case.

I am angry because this denial is exactly what is now costing so many additional lives. This level of disaster of human suffering and death was not necessary. Every country is suffering, but with our ingenuity, we could have been much better off than we are now and helped the world. Instead, we are begging for ventilators and basic supplies such as masks and gowns, receiving care packages, and are paying “surcharges,”-price gouging and profiteering by any other name. Even today, some governors across this country are not demanding their citizens to stay home. People can travel around the country, and many are still saying that wearing masks in public is unnecessary. Almost everything happens too late.

I am angry about political systems which do not think long term. The short-sightedness allowed for prevention and early intervention to fall by the wayside. That is why we let our infrastructure collapse. This is the same mentality that destroys our environment-let’s party today, and we will worry about it tomorrow. But increased disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, and fires are very visible ways that nature pays back.

I am angry that so many people are hurting and that we built a healthcare system that has to function according to the rules of the market. Everything has to be profitable or at least break even, which is a ridiculous notion. Does the military break even? Does our road system break even? Do our schools break even? Of course not. No one can deny that the healthcare system is part of our safety net-particularly when we watch the herculean efforts of increasing intensive care capacity to the point that many hospitals have become one big emergency room. Everything seems to be possible in crises, but apparently not in the long run.

I’ll now put aside my anger and resort back to my compassionate self, grateful that all of us are rising to this historic moment. We have leaders who are now working around the clock to address urgent needs, and many front-line professionals and volunteers who save lives and support the physical and mental health of the population. We are a generous nation and world and rise to support each other in moments of hardship.

Everyone says that we will be different after this is over and that our lives will have changed. I am sure we will produce solutions to avoid this calamity just as we did after 9/11 in regard to air traffic. We will have stockpiles of ventilators which will be checked regularly, and we will have enough masks and gowns for a similar situation. But the lesson here is not to find solutions for the last problem alone, but how we can finally get into prevention, planning, and creative problem-solving before disaster strikes.

How we treat our climate after this crisis will be a good test of whether the world and its leaders will have learned, but there are many more issues, including obesity and sedentary lifestyles, poverty, and income inequality. All of these issues are ticking time bombs and require long-term solutions. It is now up to all of us to advocate and to fight for system-building and prevention-something that politicians have neglected or even actively dismantled for decades to satisfy constituencies, lobbyists, and funders. When we’re past this pandemic, we must channel our anger to focus on what we can do to stop the cycle of ignoring looming crises until they’re at our doorstep. Productive anger creates voice, agency, and a sense that change is possible.

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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Gil G. Noam

Founder of The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at McLean Hospital, Faculty Member at Harvard Medical School. All opinions are my own.