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Ambiguous Loss and the Chilean Mineworkers: A Systemic Tragedy

Ambiguous Loss and the Chilean Mineworkers: A Systemic Tragedy

by Gonzalo Bacigalupe, EdD, MPH, Ikerbasque Research Professor, University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain

For more than two weeks, 33 miners have been buried alive in the North of Chile.

The tragedy occurs at a mine that very recently has had other accidents and where the rescue operations have been frustrated by lack of accurate information about the mine and a general disregard for basic safety norms. Mine accidents happen but in this case the lack of real care for the lives of the mineworkers seems to be the real cause of the tragedy.

These two weeks have been full of political posturing on the part of the government mostly as well as the former governing coalition. Everyone is ready to blame the other although we silently know that this is the responsibility of business greed and government corruption that includes the whole governing spectrum. Chilean copper, gold, and other fine minerals extraction is the core of the country’s economy. In the case of medium and small mines, the overseeing of safety regulations is grounds for corruption and shortcuts, not so dissimilar from the causes of mines accidents or the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Chile, inaccurate assessments of the situation have been packed with allusions to religion (God is mention by the President every day) and a general pretense of caring for the miners’ families has permeated the media. Tragedy sells. The fact is we know little about the people underground.  Psychologists called to the grounds provided misleading, inaccurate, and vague information about what should be expected and how families could be supported. A disaster of this nature should have been addressed with clear protocols in which the government, civil society and non-governmental organizations know exactly how to act in the aftermaths.

From a psychological and relational perspective, the tragedy contains all the ingredients of what has been coined as “ambiguous loss.” Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss in that there is no verification of death or no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be (Boss, 1999).  In Chile, with an unresolved past of disappeared citizens, the ability to resolve ambiguous loss is severely handicapped. Chile, as a society, is still unprepared to deal with the psychological and social sequelae of people suffering ambiguous loss. The anxiety, the loss of meaning, the ambivalence, and the hopelessness that this sort of catastrophe generates continues to paralyze the political establishment via blame games. Civil society and the media end acting in stereotypical and unhelpful ways to deal with ambiguous loss. Reparatory work is unseen in those circumstances. The tragedy of the mineworkers is also about trying to forget our past, to believe that simplistic solutions provide closure, and to think that one side is the one to blame for it all. It is irresponsible for political leaders and the media to continue playing the same game over and over again. We know how to address a loss of this magnitude; what we need now is the political leadership to implement those actions appropriately.

Filed under: Disaster, Emergency, global health, psychology trauma, public health, trauma, Urgent, , ,

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