David Rutherford, New Zealand’s Human Rights Commissioner wrote that “The Christchurch Recovery is New Zealands’ greatest human rights challenge”.[i] It therefore seems fitting to me to write a post on the health effects of the earthquakes and the insurance fiasco aftermath to mark year 4 of the February 22nd earthquake. Let us not forget however that September 4th is the official start of events, five months earlier.
Four years on we are discovering what comes with human pain and devastation. Human rights abuse claims have spiked in New Zealand as a result of claims filed by Canterbury residents against insurance and construction companies. Many people are still affected by the earthquakes and continue to experience a deterioration in their standard of living and impact on their quality of life that go well beyond the immediate effects of the disaster. Earthquake affected residents resort to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines that require companies to respect the human rights of those affected by their activities.
It is fair to say that thousands now fear the drawn-out recovery process more than they do the initial disaster. Unresolved insurance claims are the biggest impediment to the Christchurch rebuild and there is still much to be done and so many decisions still to be made. Of the 4731 homes to be built by March 2014 more than 4000 people are still waiting for new homes. Only 769 homes of the 7079 homes that need to be built have been completed. Twenty five per cent of commercial claims still need resolution.[ii] There are still 22,000 unresolved claims.
EQC repairs which had begun in 2011 are still not finished. Many buildings still lie in ruin, many sites are still strewn with rubble, the roads are still a mess and little appears to be happening in the central City. Of the houses that have been repaired, stories begin to emerge of shoddy repairs, likely to result in the next crisis which looms over the horizon and many residents believe we are likely to see another ‘leaky home’ style debacle in Christchurch.[iii] In a few years time it is probable that when people go looking for someone to hold accountable, the organizations responsible will have disappeared. Southern Response is to be wound up, EQC and its alliance with Fletcher Construction (EQR) are likely to have gone as well, along with many of the private construction firms responsible for repairs and rebuilds. Escape routes are doubtless already being planned.
A survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board show that more than 80 per cent of those polled stated that their lives had significantly changed with most indicating for the worse. Life in the red zone was described as ‘unbearable’ and two thirds of people believed that the quakes were a convenient way for the National Government to pursue its own agenda. [vi] Cantabrians are likely to be waiting until 2017 and beyond before their earthquake damaged homes are repaired. Many feel that they have glided out of the middle class and the trappings of middle New Zealand life and are now living in unfixed homes and very cash poor. Meanwhile we see a rapid rise in the wealth base as contractors and building firms do very well out of commercial rebuilds and insurance in the central city. There is a spike in the sale of Maserati vehicles, for instance. [vii] The Human Rights Commissioner raises concerns about the way property revaluations were carried out in the red zone. The loss of equity for property in these areas is very concerning. Some lost NZD 250,000 in value overnight. [viii]
Overcrowding in Canterbury homes comes with issues of potential epidemics, leaving children vulnerable to abuse and mental health problems. Hepatitis increases and this is said to indicate the difficulties for people living in poor quality and overcrowded environments post quake. There is an increase in the level of street related crime and disorder.[ix] The numbers of suicides related to earthquake stresses soar.[x] Hair loss has also become prevalent.[xi] Liquefaction and its ever-present dust issues increase the risk of residents contracting pneumonia. [xii] In 2014 it was reported that a fifth of children beginning school in the worst affected parts of Christchurch are showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder with signs of anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, and concentration difficulties.[xiv] [xv] In early 2014 Cabinet considers backing a plan to deal with post earthquake mental health and relationship issues – the Greater Christchurch Strategic Pychosocial Plan.[xvi] There is a 35 per cent increase of new patients since 2011 for Psychiatric emergency services, a 40 per cent increase for child and youth community mental health services and a 20 per cent demand increase for adult community mental health teams. It is now reported that the new vulnerable group in Canterbury are middle-aged Cantabrians who had previously been living comfortable lives. Insurance woes, living in damaged environments and losing recreational facilities are to blame.[xviii]
The elderly have a particularly hard time.[xix] It transpires that despite the fact that EQC is supposed to have identified the vulnerable and elderly a large number of them have ‘slipped through the cracks’. At the end of 2014 it is estimated that there were at least 6000 ‘vulnerable’ insurance customers still waiting for the resolution of their claims. Every month more are identified. There are cases like Mrs Dot Boyd, 85 years of age who has been living out of boxes while still waiting for repairs to her home three years on, despite her plight having been brought to the attention of authorities eight months earlier.[xx] Some of the elderly believe EQC “are waiting for us to die”.[xxi] [xxii] Letters to the Press such as the one below are indications of the extent of the problem,
“Dear EQC, If this is what it is like to be on your vulnerability list I would hate to think how you treat people classed as not vulnerable. I know to you we were just another case number, another file, another pile of increasingly complicated processes to be followed, but here in the real world we are hurting. Not because of the earthquakes, because of you. When my wife passed away waiting on the vulnerability list because of your red tape delays, it hurt, because you said you would help us and you didn’t. When your assessors came and removed half of the items from the scope of works it hurt, because no-one would take the time to explain why.
When you phoned today to say you are reviewing the decision to reimburse us it hurt, because you are just dragging out the pain.
When I went to write this letter to you it hurt, because we know you don’t care.…”[xxiii]
As at 30 September 2014 there is an average of 11.6 cases filed in the High Court a month. 54 cases were filed in 2012. In 2013 196 new cases were filed. In the nine months ending September 2014 a further 104 new claims were filed. There have been 359 earthquake cases filed since September 2010. Of those 21 have been appealed. By the end of 2014 EQC has spent NZD 5 million fighting court battles with Cantabrians. EQC has contested 230 cases – this cost is met by tax payers, the crown and reinsurers.[xxiv] EQC staff called police 90 times in the past two and a half years in response to threatening or distressed clients.[xxv]
Though these numbers may not seem great the reality of our justice system is that the courts only provide ’ justice’ for the wealthy. For the vast majority of Cantabrians they have had to be content with ‘you’ll get what we give you.’ Labour proposes setting up a special Earthquake court as a way to make insurer’s ‘pay for people to sue them’. Of course the suggestion met with little support from the Insurance Council or the Government. Suggestions and the reasons given for the delays are the complexity of issues involved. Many people including myself have had tens of ‘assessments’ completed and still no definitive determination.[xxvi] My own personal experience and that of my neighbours is indicative of a much wider and cynical systemic issue at play.[xxvii]
The true cost of the Christchurch rebuild continues to climb but it’s not the increasing building costs but the cost to human life and dignity. The hardship felt by many families, often the most vulnerable, rages on with unaffordable rents and a high demand for accommodation plus thousands of people who are still battling EQC and the private insurance industry. The unconscionable delays are exacting a very heavy toll.
A full citizen has access to five types of rights – civil, political, cultural, social and economic. Social rights include the right to an adequate standard of living, social protection, occupational health and safety, housing, health care and education. AS I see it by allowing the insurance industry to take its time our government is abusing those rights with an ever increasing ease and impunity. Policies and institutional changes will be judged by whether they move towards or away from it for the most deprived in the community. Though the Christchurch experiences shows that New Zealand’s electoral politics is shaped purely by money with presentation skills, slogans and buzz words dominating any form of substance.
[i] Human rights route by quake victims, Rick Jordan, Christchurch Press, 11 July, 2014.
[ii] Is the sun setting on the rebuild? Lois Cairns and John McCrone, Christchurch Press, March 08, 2014.
[iii] http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/8949364/Quake-repairs-EQR-totally-incompetent; Are assessors scratching the surface? John McCrone, Christchurch Press, 19 April, 2014.
[iv] Game of Claims, John McCrone, Christchurch Press, 02 Aug, 2014.
[v] Anxious, depressed and now angry, Olivia Carville, Christchurch Press, Apr 02, 2013.
[vi] Aftershock of depression, anger still felt, Olivia Carville, Christchurch Press, April 15, 2013.
[vii] Rise of waelthy changes Canty, Charlie Gates, Christchurch Press, 12 Aug, 2014.
[viii] Issues and inconsistencies in latest rating valuations, Dr Duncan Webb, Christchurch Press, 6 May 2014.
[ix] Stressed Cantabs turn to violence, Joelle Dally, Christchurch Press, Apr 03, 2013.
[x] Canterbury suicides decline, Olivia Carville, Christchurch Press, Aug 27, 2013.
[xi] Hairloss linked to quakes, Joelle Dally, Christchurch Press, July 06, 2013.
[xii] Ill health linked to quake silt, dust, Fairfax Media, Christchurch Press, Aug 15, 2013.
[xiii] Alcohol use ‘masks’ quake troubles, Ashleigh Stewart, Christchurch Press, Nov 25, 2013.
[xiv] Children suffering from stress aftershock, John McCrone, Christchurch Press, Feb 01, 2014.
[xvii] ‘Crisis’ for mentally ill, Olivia Carville, Christchurch Press, Feb 15, 2014.
[xviii] Stress taking its toll, Marc Greenhill, Christchurch Press, March 19, 2014.
[xix] quake strain catalyst for elder abuse, Christchurch Press, Tim Fulton, 12 Aug, 2014.
[xx] EQC bosses meet Brownlee over plight of elderly victims, Fairfax NZ, Christchurch Press, March 08, 2014.
[xxi] EQC ‘waiting for us to die’, Charles Anderson, Christchurch Press, March 15, 2014.
[xxii] Why is Alf still waiting, 92 year-old pensioner stuck in damaged home, Ashliegh Stewart, Christchurch Press, 07 June, 2014.
[xxiii] Writing this hurts, EQC, because you don’t care, Letters to the Editor, Gaven Tucker, Christchurch Press, 14 May, 2014.
[xxiv] EQCs court costs with Cantabs exceed $%m, Michael Wright, Christchurch Press, 30 December 2014.
[xxv] Quake stresses lead to threats, Cecile Meier, Christchurch Press, Jan 10, 2015.
[xxvi] 88 house checks and still waiting, Rick Jordan, Christchurch Press, 12 Aug, 2014.
[xxvii] Tangled cases hard to unpick, The Editor, Christchurch Press, 11 June 2014.