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‘A feeling of injustice at the cost of health'

Datum:14 juli 2017
Auteur:Dr Katherine Stroebe
Dr Katherine Stroebe, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Groningen
Dr Katherine Stroebe, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Groningen

How to restore trust? How to ensure a feeling of safety, good health and reasonable quality of life? How to maintain a way of living that enables a joint future? These are just some of the issues that are at play in the Groningen earthquake region. The University of Groningen is currently conducting various scientific studies with the aim of generating and sharing knowledge that can be of use to and applied within the affected region. If the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health can play a role in identifying central concerns within the region and bringing together those who study and wish to address the many urgent issues that are at play in the region, I see new projects and lines of research develop. And I hope the inhabitants of the earthquake region can really profit from these developments.   

The research I am involved in, as part of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, focuses on how the gas extraction affects people’s perceptions of safety and their health. A topic that, until recently, has attracted little attention. Our ‘gas extraction research’ is commissioned by Hans Alders, the national coordinator for the Groningen earthquake region (the Nationaal Coördinator Groningen; NCG). We take a scientific approach and make sure we safeguard the neutrality of our research. Of course we hope that the recommendations we make based on our research will be ‘heard’. But I am aware that as a researcher one has little influence on the extent to which research results are actually applied in practice. I realised that all the more when an inhabitant of the area said to me: ‘The university is doing their best, but what will the national gas company, NAM, and the authorities do with all this knowledge?’ It indicates how deep the wounds that have been inflicted are.

 ‘A great sense of injustice reigns in the gas extraction region’

 For many years, the needs of the inhabitants of the region have been neglected: the national gas company extracted gas and profited financially from this gas extraction, as did the Dutch government. These parties have not been responsive to complaints about the earthquakes and damages to housing as a consequence of the gas extraction. Inhabitants of the region feel that their individual concerns and interests have been neglected in order to serve greater economic interests. This collective ‘feeling of injustice’ touches on my area of expertise: research on behaviour in situations in which people feel treated unfairly as well as on people’s explanation of injustice. Put simply: does God, Fate, Nature, plain bad luck or man himself ‘cause’ injustice? Who is to blame for injustice?

‘There is a great increase in stress- and depression-related symptoms’

This existential question is echoed in our research. First of all, there is tangible material damage. Hidden behind this, there lies a much larger problem, namely the fact that these damages undermine people’s sense of safety. These damages and feelings of unsafety are at the root of, and as we now know actually are the cause of, an alarming increase in the number of stress- and depression-related symptoms. The feeling of not being heard, that no one seems to be acting in the interest of the inhabitants, contributes to these health problems. The inhabitants themselves are in no doubt about the answer to the question who or what is the cause of this injustice. ‘NAM cheated on us and national politics has left us in the lurch.’

Our research leaves little doubt that the only way to really address the problems within this region is by preventing damages from occurring to housing. Yet, within the existing (political) boundaries our main recommendation is that priority should be given to damages, perceptions of safety and health. This will also mean creating procedures that everyone recognises and experiences as transparent and fair. This can be regarding procedures for reimbursing damage to housing, but also with regard to information about the actual safety of people’s home (something inhabitants are concerned about). Only then can trust to some extent be regained, step by step. Regarding health(care), I feel an overarching and coordinated long term approach is still missing. The urgency of this situation, and the vulnerability of inhabitants is now more than evident, now it is time for wide ranging action.

 ‘If the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health succeeds in compiling existing knowledge and in bringing parties together, I envision the inhabitants of the earthquake region as the biggest winners.’

Our research project, which is part of the Social Psychology department, ends this year, but hopefully we will be able to continue this work in the coming years. The University of Groningen will (hopefully) continue its commitment to the problems of this region, specifically the gas extraction. The University of Groningen’s KADO Centre of Expertise (Kenniscentrum Aardbevingen en Duurzame Ontwikkeling), which focuses on earthquakes and sustainable development, specializes in studying the major issues that currently affect the region. If the Aletta Jacobs School succeeds in making a connection to KADO, and further define health related needs of the region, I think we can create a scientifically very interesting environment in which we integrate different perspectives and reach new insights.

If we bring together more disciplines and areas of expertise and share our knowledge widely, the Aletta Jacobs School will be able to set up new projects and determine new lines of research. This should be of interest not only to scientists. A study and research institute completely focussing on health issues - such as how to safeguard (mental health), or the sustainability, affordability and accessibility of the healthcare sector – is sure to attract students from other locations. When I think of the connecting role which the Aletta Jacobs School could play in the near future regarding applied follow-up research related to the earthquake problems, my first hope is that the inhabitants of the region will profit from these developments. And perhaps they will feel a little more ‘heard’.

Please think along with us and join in the discussions. 

This article has been written in cooperation with Ton Hilderink. The article was translated from Dutch to English by a translator.

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