Compassion fatigue is understandable, but nothing beats that feeling of togetherness

Disaster seems to have snowballed in the past 12 months. Australia battled the worst bushfires in history and shortly after, COVID hit. But after everything, the support we give to each other hasn’t waned, says Belinda Dimosvki, director of engagement and support at the Red Cross.

I consider myself an optimist. You have to be in this line of work. But I can tell you that it has been an incredibly hard time for us in the charity sector.

I have witnessed my friends and Red Cross colleagues – volunteers, members and paid staff – work themselves ragged as they supported bushfire survivors getting back on their feet. Then the pandemic hit: we all went into lockdown, jobs were lost, people left stranded.

In fact, there has been more demand for Australian Red Cross’s services over the past year than any other time since WWII. Our staff, volunteers and members have been involved in three significant back-to-back disasters – drought, bushfires and COVID-19.

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The impacts of COVID-19 have been significant. It’s more expensive to deliver services – at a time when demand for those services is greater than ever.

Our ability to fundraise has been impacted as a result of the pandemic. We had to pause some of our fundraising events. We also had to postpone first aid courses and close our Australian Red Cross retail shops – any profit from these social enterprises helps fund our humanitarian services.

Like everyone, we adapted and focused on designing digital fundraising campaigns. Some have worked really well, but others cannot replicate the cut-through that we’ve secured in more personal, face-to-face campaigns.

Of course, we were never going to see a repeat of the extraordinary generosity of Australians as we saw in the wake of last summer’s unprecedented bushfire season – COVID or not – so it was no surprise that we have been receiving fewer donations than we were a year ago.

All charities are trying to figure out how to do more with less. Yet our staff and volunteers are making do with the resources we have and are continuing to help with the national response to the pandemic.

We’ve already supported more than 120,000 vulnerable people with financial assistance to buy food, medicine and pay bills. We have also made more than 230,000 wellbeing calls providing psychological first aid to those who are isolated or in quarantine.

Towards the end of last year, we released the results of our annual survey of kindness – although it is equally a study of loneliness.

You’d think that 2020 would have seen a lot more pessimism and hardness developing through the community. Yet what we discovered was quite different. In spite of the pandemic, the people we surveyed felt a stronger sense of community and collective kindness.

Getting through this pandemic is about people helping people. That feeling of togetherness – that we need to support one another, despite all the problems in the world – has helped to stave off a lot of so-called “compassion fatigue”.

You only have to look at what happened in Perth earlier this month. In the midst of a five-day lockdown, a bushfire spread through the Perth Hills, destroying 86 homes and seeing hundreds of people evacuated.

Coming a year after the horror bushfire season of 2019/20, when hundreds of millions of dollars were raised by a variety of organisations to help those affected, it is easy for someone to fear compassion fatigue.

Yet, in the space of a few weeks, around $13 million has been donated to Western Australia’s Lord Mayor’s Distress Relief Fund to help those affected by the bushfire.

We also received generous donations to our Red Cross Disaster Response and Recovery Fund, which went towards the cost of our emergency work in WA, including for our teams on the ground working in response to the fire and the ongoing recovery. Further donations to the fund will be used to help people during disasters and other emergencies around Australia.

This pandemic has wrought so much damage. Thankfully, it hasn’t destroyed empathy.