What we can learn from the collective trauma of these uncertain times

Analysing how Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s community dealt with the disruption of mass protests and now the coronavirus lockdown can aid in its recovery, say five health communication researchers 

March 17, 2020
Hong Kong protests
Source: iStock

It’s been more than a century since the French sociologist Emile Durkheim began exploring the idea of coherence within societies and communities that were evolving beyond traditional religious and social structures. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century and face waves of global social unrest – and now the Covid-19 pandemic – it is timely to refocus on the nature, diversity and coherence of modern communities.

Attempts to withdraw inside our borders as we institute social isolation measures are responsible ways to contain the spread of this virus, but we need to consider how our communities will recover and re-form after this crisis has passed.

Our modern universities offer unique insights into the complexities of communities. They bring together scholars and students from around the world for employment, education, learning and thinking about the future. This diversity weaves a vibrant but also, at times, delicate social fabric.

The impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on universities is already reverberating across the world. Australian universities have predicted the considerable impact that the loss of foreign student fees will have. Meanwhile, universities in the UK and US are calling off face-to-face classes and scrambling to move instruction online. This disruption and uncertainty will undoubtedly provoke anxiety for university communities as well as the individuals who have to deal with either possible or real interruptions to work and study.

The community-level effects of these types of events and the associated discourses that cause widespread upheaval and anxiety is a type of collective trauma. Previous research has focused on collective trauma in the context of natural disasters such as bushfires, floods or civil war. But the collective trauma associated with prolonged social unrest such as that seen in Hong Kong in recent months, and the disruption and uncertainty caused by the global health crisis, have not yet been studied in detail.

The experiences of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University – a community of more than 30,000 students and staff – over the last six months offer a novel opportunity to study collective trauma and recovery within a culturally and linguistically diverse university community.

Social unrest was ongoing in Hong Kong following the proposal of the, now withdrawn, extradition bill in June 2019. Early on, marches through the busy central district were massive and largely peaceful. In later months, however, they were marked by increasingly destructive and violent clashes between police and protesters.

In November 2019, in the wake of calls for a general strike across the city and in attempts to paralyse transport networks and block key roads, groups of protesters gathered in some of the city’s universities. PolyU, located in the Hung Hom area of Kowloon, was severely affected by these events.

Facilities were damaged, face-to-face classes were cancelled, staff lost access to their workplace and there was a rapid switch to online teaching. The impact of such sudden and unexpected disruption is undoubtedly traumatic. The loss of a place of work or study, a perceived threat to personal safety and uncertainty about the future are acknowledged causes of psychological trauma at the individual level.

In December 2019 we initiated a research project and began talking to staff and students at PolyU about how they were affected by the protest-related events and what they thought the future may hold for the community of PolyU.

Early-stage thematic analysis of this data indicates some important areas for future work as well as some ideas for community-level intervention to support people through the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. We found that some individuals referred to:

1. The importance of opportunities to tell personal stories about the events that disrupted the PolyU community. Although endless media coverage recorded events and images, individuals valued the opportunity to talk about how they were personally affected in terms of their ability to work or study and how they felt in relation to the future. Telling personal stories focused on the impact on the individual rather than factual accuracy.

2. Actions to bring people back together as soon as possible after disruptive events are important to recovery but need to be done in a way that feels “safe” to the people concerned. Emphasising what a community has in common may help to take the focus away from potential divisions between people during a period of disruption when the social fabric of a community has been ruptured. The idea of resuming community activities with a sense of safety, however, means different things to different people and is influenced by cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

3. Visible signs of recovery in communities are important, such as being able to follow how places and sites are being cleaned and restored. Some people felt that opportunities to contribute to these could rebuild a sense of community.

Although the experiences of the PolyU community are located within a particular geopolitical context, the notions of community coherence and collective trauma are important at a global level. We need to learn more about our university communities and how to build resilience and coherence when we are faced with community-level disruption caused by external events such as social unrest and health crises.

Understanding more about collective trauma and recovery can also help support the mental health of individuals within these communities. Undergraduate university students are often in a transitional life stage as they move from adolescence to adulthood and may be living far from their families when these unexpected events occur. It is the responsibility of universities to be prepared and able to offer support that is both culturally and linguistically suited to the needs of these diverse communities. Understanding collective trauma and the variety of ways in which individuals react to and remember events offers insights into how the connections that make up communities can be damaged and, over time and with support, repaired.

Margo Turnbull, Bernadette Watson, Ying Jin, Alexandra Sanderson and Beatrice Lok are researchers at the International Research Centre for the Advancement of Health Communication at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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