COVID-19 Blog
30 March 2020

Living Hand-in-Hand with Uncertainty: What growing up with earthquakes taught me

Empty stores, misinformation, fear of the unknown, the current coronavirus outbreak has destabilised our rhythm and certainties. In this article, Fumi Kurihara, Research and Project Officer at the Global Health Centre reflects on her personal experiences with earthquakes and shares strategies for these uncertain times.

Empty stores, (mis)information overload, fear of the unknown, Panic

No, I’m not talking about Covid-19. I’m talking about March 11, 2011. For those of you who do not remember, March 11 was the day a magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake hit the pacific coast of Tohoku which not only triggered a massive tsunami, but also created mayhem through nuclear radiation leaks as three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex had level 7 meltdowns. Fortunately, I was not in Fukushima so I was not directly affected by the tsunami. But I was directly affected by the earthquake itself and, at least indirectly, by the consequences of the radiation leaks.

All kinds of (mis)information was spreading, such as how radiation was leaking into the water we were drinking. Food, drinks and other essentials were disappearing from the shelves in the grocery stores. Even the vending machines were emptying out with people frantically trying to get whatever they could get their hands on. Uncertainty sure brings the best and worst in people. I am not going to lie – I was terrified, confused and lost. I had just turned eighteen, one year away from graduating high school and many of my non-Japanese friends were sent back home due to the uncertainty around the radiation – I was never able to say a proper “good-bye” to them because they left so quickly. Despite all this though, March 11 was just an outlier of the “normal” in my life – earthquakes.

Earthquakes accompanied me throughout my entire life. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m Japanese and spent a large portion of my youth in Tokyo. From a young age, I would be woken up in the middle of the night to the ground shaking and the lamps on the ceiling swinging back and forth like a pendulum, my classes would be interrupted – funnily, often in the middle of a test or exam – or public transportation would temporarily stop due to a minor or major earthquake. But still, life went on. In this sense, I learned to live side by side with uncertainty, to cope with uncertainty, to be “immune” to uncertainty. Maybe this is because somewhere along my life, uncertainty itself became certain.

Of course, a lot has to do with the fact that we have earthquake drills from Kindergarten onward and at home. We are taught to hide under a table or chair and protect our heads; to open windows and doors to create as many escape routes as possible; to have canned food and other “emergency food” at home or hanging next to your school table; to inform ourselves where the nearest refuge to your home is (usually the nearest public school) – all of which are coping mechanisms and tools to prepare you for the next earthquake. Being socialized this way proves to be sticky. To this day, wherever I am in the world, the first thing I do is to observe my surroundings and look for the best place to hide under in case of an earthquake. Spending most of my time outside of Japan in Western Europe, I quickly realized that I was one of the few ones with this habit. It was simple – most people living here have never experienced an earthquake, especially not on a constant basis as I have.

Uncertainty is disconcerting. But it doesn’t mean you have to live in fear everyday. Let me share with you some of the lessons the many earthquakes in my life taught me. It may not give you all the answers, but I hope they will give you a glimmer of hope, and get you through a little bit.


More information ≠ More certainty: Stop checking your phone

If you can’t do this, log off all social media accounts, mute your phone, or put your phone on flight mode. In times of uncertainty, people are desperate for answers. I am not saying it’s wrong to seek answers – it’s natural, rational and logical. However, more information does not necessarily mean certainty. We live in an era with too much information. Every second, someone is posting something new online, news outlets are updating their live tickers – never mind if it’s real or fake news, whether the reporting is accurate or selective. Information overload, especially when there are many different versions to one story, causes confusion and can make people even more anxious than they already are. I should also mention here that it is not only the fault of those behind these news outlets that are to blame, but also ours, the readers. Humans are selective and interpret what they want to see and hear differently in times of uncertainty. It may become more common for people to react to “clickbait headlines” – incentivizing such reporting for news outlet – and skip the details of the article and, instead, jump straight to (potentially wrong) conclusions.

I remember back in 2011 when I was consumed with so much (mis)information about the nuclear radiation spill in Tohoku, I did not know anymore what I knew, didn’t know, what was real and what was fake. Through this experience, I learned the importance of blocking out all excessive “noise”. What could this look like during Covid-19? What I usually do is the following: I wake up in the morning and spend at most one hour checking the latest news, then put my phone aside and don’t check anything related to Covid-19 until later on in the day. If you go for a walk or jog – either early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid running into as many people as possible – leave your phone at home. Not checking your phone for one hour is not going to change your life. If you are someone who stays at home, it is especially important that you discipline yourself on when to check your phone because staying inside and gathering information about the outside world from your phone is going to take a toll on you. To reiterate, I am not saying you should not inform yourself. You should be informing yourself via reliable news outlets, but in considerable doses.


Accept the reality of uncertainty

Three and a half years ago when I first came to Geneva, I would have never said this. The reason I left Japan is because I was fed up with the whole “しょうがない/仕方がない(shouganai/shikataganai)” culture: this mindset of “it cannot be helped” and therefore we must accept things as they are. For a rebel like me who is constantly questioning the status quo, you can imagine why I may have clashed (often) with the Japanese culture. I am starting to see though that this acceptance of reality is sometimes needed in societies whose values are embedded in narratives such as “everything is possible if you just believe” and “you can change the world”. Don’t get me wrong. These narratives can be empowering at times, but the “you can do whatever you want if you really want it” attitude may be counter-intuitive in times of uncertainty because you are never going to achieve it. You will just end up frustrated and angry.


Take it one day at a time

I think this is the hardest to convince people. The problem with Covid-19 is that no one knows for sure until when this is going to last, for however long we are going to have to do home office and isolate ourselves. This uncertainty is indeed intimidating. But the thing is, unlike earthquakes, you can at least track the development of a disease – be it accurate or not – which I think is a luxury (I wish I knew which week the next earthquake was likely to strike so I know when I shouldn’t be fixing my nail-polish!). For the longest time, Tokyo has been expecting its next huge earthquake – it is expected to come in the next thirty years. But you can’t live the next thirty years at home with the constant fear of not knowing when it’s going to come. You just have to live everyday and take each day as it comes.

There’s a great quote from Michael Ende’s novel Momo (also known as The Grey Gentlemen) that reflects the point I want to make perfectly:

You see Momo, it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept… and then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster, and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it… You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.


Don’t create a sense of certainty by blaming others

In times of uncertainty, people seek certainty – this can often mean criticizing others who are “fueling” this uncertainty. By calling out others who are, from your perspective, handling a situation inappropriately, you may seek to create a sense of certainty about the correctness of your own behavior.

I remember the day after March 11, I walked past two Pachinko parlors (they’re basically like casinos) and was shocked to see them full. Not even 24 hours earlier, thousands of people lost everything. Luckily, I did not lose anything compared to those in Fukushima, but I was in solidarity with them and had put my life on hold to reach out to those affected in various forms – I know it may seem extreme, but I remember telling my mom that we should adopt a child who lost their parents. I was just desperate to do something. And yet, here I was, watching people gambling away as if yesterday did not happen. I was furious. How dare they sit in front of these games like zombies instead of helping those who are affected?

Now that I reflect upon this incidence in the context of Covid-19, I see that I was wrong to blame these people. I was wrong, because I now realize and accept the fact that everyone has a different coping mechanism, and I respect this. I will never know if these people in the Pachinko parlors were actually affected by March 11 and were playing to escape from reality. I will also never know if they just didn’t care and March 11 was just another of those many natural disasters they experienced throughout their lifetime. Maybe I was the one over-reacting because it was the first life-changing natural disaster I have ever experienced back then. The thing is, times of uncertainty reveal different people’s values, beliefs and morals. Your values, beliefs and morals may not be the same as your friends, but that doesn’t mean theirs is any less significant or worse than yours. We all hold onto what we believe in in times of uncertainty because that’s the only thing that will get us through these moments.


Remember this moment – boost your immunity to uncertainty

Once life gets back to normal, people are going to forget about this moment. Slowly perhaps, but surely. It’s human nature to forget or have the desire to forget, especially negative memories. It’s also human nature to resort to complacency. Complacency, though comforting, is dangerous, because it makes you oblivious, prone to, and vulnerable to anything destabilizing that may come at you in life. We live in uncertain times, and especially with climate change, this pandemic is just the first of many catastrophes to come. This means you need to learn how to live hand-in-hand with uncertainty. Whilst everyone will have a different strategy, I can recommend the following:

First, take this moment to reflect upon your everyday life and recognize and appreciate the little things you usually take for granted – freedom of movement, human and physical relationships, your internship/job (even if you don’t enjoy it)… Try to focus on the good things that come out of this, such as the solidarity amongst strangers, the fostering of relationships with your neighbors and the elderly, the re-fostering of real communication between your partner and family members. Make this into an experience where you don’t want to put into your “To forget” chapter of your life, because keeping a memory alive is important to not fall into the trap of complacency.

Second, take this opportunity to reflect upon best coping practices for yourself. This means, amongst others, stocking upon basic supplies on a daily basis so that you don’t end up binge-buying and contribute to the emptying of stores, making a list of coping mechanisms that work for you (i.e. reading, doing yoga, baking, coloring…). You can, further, use it to enhance your immunity to uncertainty by knowing that you overcame it before. As I said earlier, situations such as these are going to become more frequent, so take this moment as a wake-up call to prepare yourself for whatever uncertainty life throws at you. After all, the only things you regret in life are the things that you failed to do – make the future you a favor and start bracing yourself, little by little, baby steps.

To wrap up, I found a short article by an astronaut – I find it amusing how his experience in space and my experience with earthquakes have taught us similar lessons and prepared us for this moment.



Written by @KuriharaFumi, Research and Project Officer at the Global Health Centre


Disclaimer: This article is not meant to undermine anybody’s fears in this time of uncertainty. The author is aware that everyone has a different point of reference based on their lived experiences, as well as their own coping mechanisms. Furthermore, the author is aware that this article may oversimplify the lived realities of many people. This article is not comprehensive and sheds light onto only one piece of the puzzle: the author’s very own experience which differs dramatically from the one of others, who might be enduring more hardships.