Keep your distance

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In Australia we have watched what seemed first to be a slow moving wave of COVID-19 infections. We faced an early crisis in February that closed the border to international students, but this was an overseas problem. The more recent toilet paper shortages were a harbinger of what was to come crashing over us at home in the last week or so, culminating in the likely declaration of a health emergency.

Man alone in an office building (Getty images/Nick Dolding)

As with many crises, the world is simultaneously continuing apace and seemingly falling apart. Images of empty streets in countries in lockdown tell a very different story from the NRL fans cheering at the new Townsville stadium on Friday night. As late as Friday we had the Prime Minister announcing a shut-down of events of over 500 people, commencing Monday*, but otherwise reassuring us that it was business as usual. By Sunday, government messaging was all about social distancing and the compulsory quarantine of all international arrivals. While large events were to be cancelled, school, university and public transport would continue — with the somewhat puzzling invocation to remain 1.5m away from the next person.

While all this has been going on, some businesses in Australia have not altered their course, and others have either closed down or have sent staff to work from home. People who are ‘unwell’ have been asked to stay at home. Media has reported that testing kit stocks are low, and medical facilities are unprepared for the onslaught. For the non-expert, there is an air of uncertainty to the messaging.

How to make sense of what is going on?

As one who has struggled the parameters for making decisions about what to do, I think that there are ostensibly competing discourses at play. Apart from widespread community concern, or even fear, I see three different spheres of risk that are melding together in the collective (non-expert) consciousness: public health, personal health, and workplace health and safety.

The first two of these, public and personal health, are oriented slightly differently in their frames of reference. My friend Trent Yarwood, an infectious disease physician with an interest in public health, has usefully explained the difference in this post here. Government messaging, then, is largely about public health — measures to stop, slow, or manage the spread of disease across a population. This is why at the moment large gatherings are cancelled but schools remain open. It seems that there is little evidence that the population will be protected from school closures at this point in a pandemic’s cycle. (There is a useful Twitter thread on this here.) As the Queensland Chief Medical Officer said on Sunday, school closures were a ‘strategic decision that would be made when the time is right.’

 

'Sensibly, workplaces would engage in open communication with staff about their concerns and have a robust and compassionate policy concerning absence or working remotely. This might go some way to alleviating staff concerns, while also promoting a healthy workforce...'

 

For many, however, this public health decision does not help in making decisions about one’s personal health. Although we are told that there is low risk of catching the disease if we practise social distancing and good hygiene, and self-isolate if we are ‘unwell’, the concern remains. This is particularly so for those who are immune compromised in some way, or who live with someone who is. We know that this epidemic has a way to run. As a matter of personal protection (or protection of our family), there remains a question of how we individually respond to the epidemic.

I think that the confluence of public health and concern for ourselves and our families can be difficult to reconcile. But this is compounded by a further layer of analysis — that of the workplace.

So long as the government maintains ‘business as usual’, workplaces are left to choose themselves whether they stay open or close or send staff to work at home (where that is an option). Businesses will make this decision based on economic risk, which includes the risk of liability for workplace health and safety. Firms have a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace. This will mean following the public health advice, namely, if an employee feels ‘unwell’ then they should self-isolate. But this does not cover circumstances where vulnerable employees are well but should not be exposed to risk. It does not cover those staff whose family are vulnerable. These people are not ‘unfit for work’ as such. But they do face a risk in the workplace. Businesses lie at the intersection of public and personal health.

Sensibly, workplaces would engage in open communication with staff about their concerns and have a robust and compassionate policy concerning absence or working remotely. This might go some way to alleviating staff concerns, while also promoting a healthy workforce on both an individual level, and throughout the workplace.

Part of the challenge for authorities in communicating their message may be a lack of public awareness of how this disease is likely to play out through our community and what are the points at which public health measures will change. In short, as public health communication expert Daniel Reeders argues, we need help to understand what is happening, including concrete metaphors that explain an otherwise complex situation, and we need concrete advice on what to do.

Perhaps, as some argue, the government message is clear — but based on public reaction, it seems that the messaging could be refined.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice. She is presently associate professor of law at Griffith Law School.

Main image: Man alone in an office building (Getty images/Nick Dolding)

*For updates on current COVID-19 restrictions, go to heath.gov.au

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, COVID-19, coronavirus, public health

 

 

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Existing comments

It is a puzzling invocation to remain 1.5m away from another person in situations like public transport. Maybe social distancing means avoiding situations where contact is not absolutely necessary, but I'm not sure about the definition of 'absolutely necessary' in our minds. I have a granddaughter in a vulnerable situation health-wise and so caution is very necessary for her continued safety. For the general population I have a feeling that Australians will be loath to follow the advice of social distancing because of the nature of our society.
Pam | 18 March 2020


Maths of biology dictates that diseases logrameticaly so lock downs must be immediate NOT MEASURED
John Jack | 18 March 2020


Quote from the link"Dr Armstrong urges people not to ‘panic buy’ goods, it sounds incongruous, because it doesn’t fit with everything leading up to it. The broad theme is ‘protect yourselves because the government won’t.’" This morning Scott Morrison became "cross Dad" and told us all to stop hoarding as it is un-Australian. In the past two decades it has become very Australian to look out for yourself and your own because the government has no intention of doing so. That is the kind of "Economy" we live in now. If we want people to behave differently, maybe we need to revive the notion of "Commonwealth".
Janet | 18 March 2020


Kate, You made some important points here. I am retired, over 70 and have health issues that make me vulnerable if I catch the virus . All three of my adult children are now working from home. My concern is the issue of OH&S for people working at home. I understand it is an obligation of the employer to ensure a safe workplace. As one of my children lives in my residence and is working in a room next to my office, does my Home Insurance cover her should there be an accident, or is it her employer's obligation? The other issue is the mixed messages from the Government last week regarding sporting events and behaviors in public places. It gave the impression that under pressure from vested interests, the Government was trying to have it both ways.The end result, confusion, alarm and panic!
Gavin O'Brien | 18 March 2020


It seems from media footage there are now many more selfish and inconsiderate people in our society which makes it a dangerous place for all as this covid19 disaster is demonstrating. I was supermarket shopping today and speaking with people that have travelled in excess of 200km seeking food and essentials which are no longer available in regional towns and cities due to panic buying.
Count Carmista | 18 March 2020


I have had nothing but the greatest admiration for the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews until his most irksome press brief 1PM today when Crown casino came up. Yikes... the national advice is bans on non-essential indoor events, restricted to less than 100 people but the Casino gets special consideration because they're trying really hard and it is somehow a "workplace"; how do patron punters qualify as essential or employees? He then redirected the awkward questions to the state health minister who suddenly vanished from the conference. Problem solved. It'll get interesting when the bouncers at the door only allow restricted entry to those with enough disposable cash in their pocket to make them desirable. Money changes everything...even contamination risk.
ray | 18 March 2020


FYI The great influenza pandemic emerging in 1918 ("Spanish 'Flu' " is a misnomer) struck Australia in January 1919. Hospitals were swamped. Local halls & gymnasia, inter alia, became temporary hospitals. In Melbourne, the Exhibition Building accommodated many hundreds, treating well over one thousand, 302 of whom died there. Across Nicholson Street is the venerable bluestone Academy of Mary Immaculate, motto Speculum Sine Macula. Some of the teaching Sisters may have served among the large contingent of Nuns: nursing, teaching and contemplative; committed by Archbishop Dr Daniel Mannix to swell the ranks ministering to the gravely ill in Church and Secular Public Wards, including the temporary. Another provisional arrangement was the Armistice of 11/11/1918, still in place. Until the end of June 1919, pending outcomes in Versailles' Salle des Miroirs, we were still in a state of war with Germany. We should revere those Reverend Sisters as ANZAC GIRLS.
james marchment | 18 March 2020


This comment that I received today is worth repeating. "Social distancing" has negative connotations. We really mean physical distance in social connections. We desperately need the social connections.
Sheelah | 18 March 2020


I think we have talked the situation up till we think we are on a war footing: a very dangerous perspective to have. We need to look at it as a national emergency, like the bushfires, where we all cooperate. If it's every man or woman for his/her self we are really in a mess.
Edward Fido | 18 March 2020


Here is a tip from someone who is immunosuppressed like I have been for the past 27 years, we keep away from people at the best of times, we are quite capable of our own care and don't need prattling nit wits to pretend to care. We are denied DSP pensions, we are denied a decent quality of life, our problems are usually not that common, I have Crohn's disease and associated problems, and no one gives a damn about me until I need help then they tell me I am putting it on. My family and friends know to stay away from me if they are sick and I am never in crowded places, cause I am claustraphobic too, I want all healthy Australian's to panic and lock themselves up so I can get out more.
Marilyn | 18 March 2020


South Korea has been using Chloroquine from onstart inpatients. I watched this video and most of all others in these day by day postings, providing links to medical papers online, 6 days ago circa. https://thereformedbroker.com/2020/03/15/chloroquine-zinc-this-dirt-cheap-widely-available-malaria-treatment-became-south-koreas-weapon-of-choice-against-covid-19/ France should not take credit. Is should be noted, medical papers online are saying Hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic derivative of chloroquine https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciaa237/5801998 . I highly recommend the latest in the series, explaining the science beside self-isolation https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=coronavirus+pandemic+update+39
AO | 19 March 2020


Over this week, during my watching ABC news 24, I have not heard reported anything about how South Korea has been using Chloroquine from on start. The hypotheses in the success in South Korea, therefore, is not exclusively in the testing... Please get up to speed Australia, with all medical reporting, and daily findings by WHO via your News Channels. Thank you.
AO | 19 March 2020


For those who prefer to read charts of the daily progression. 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic in Australia Wiki, is very helpful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_Australia
AO | 19 March 2020


An inspired article triggering a lively correspondence and, in Marilyn's instance, an hilariously caustic post! 'Social distancing' appears to be of English philogistic proclivity, belonging, so to speak, to the 'Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me' School of Understated Euphemistic Expression. Its murderous employment by thoughtless cowards was brought to the fore on our tellies the other night, when an elderly Italian Grandmother, distraught in extremis, was being persuaded by her children to 'self-isolate' for two weeks after just being informed that her husband of fifty years had died of Corona-19 related respiratory failure. My take was that they were rightly so busy intimately comforting her that it made sense to shift in with her rather than add to her shockingly evident distress. Another thought for those here present is to maintain a watching brief on what passes under the counter politically, as with 9/11, while considerations of personal safety take precedence over our social responsibility. Our Lady of Sorrows, Pray for Us!
Michael Furtado | 19 March 2020


Maybe it's a sign of the times (secular matters only in the public square): here we are, increasingly prone to a state of coronaphobia that confounds the hubris of contemporary scientism and Hegelian progressivist optimism, and provides a range of responses from health, economic, educational, political, etc, angles - yet almost a total self-isolated silence from a theological perspective . . . Is it too soon for such reflection? Is it really, as some are naming it it, "the year that God forgot?" . . . (Personally, I think the line in the Lord's Prayer "Give us this day our daily bread" speaks volumes to the desperate drive behind the avaricious and anti-social activities still on display in many supermarkets) . . .
John RD | 19 March 2020


Instead of watching videos on the Net with doubtful authenticity, sadly even some TV shows are dishing up rubbish; the best source of information is Government websites or medical sites. Or if your GP can see you or (as mine advised me yesterday) call him/her if you have concerns or symptoms. I would think an A&E is the worst place to present .They are too busy treating serious cases and don't need you there.The Webb is full of rubbish and false news. There is NO cure so far for the Virus, it's months/years away.
Gavin O'Brien | 19 March 2020


Tips from BBC China news crew: 1. Have a shower immediately after returning home. Don't sit down as virus can live on clothes, bags and surfaces for hours to days according to some of the scientific studies. 2. Wipe all bags, keys, opal card, etc, immediately after coming in from outside with disinfectant or hot, soapy water. 3. Separate the clothes you wore outside and wash in hot soapy water. Don't put down on couch or chairs as that can spread virus 4. Drink lots of hot drinks: water, coffee, tea, lemon water, 5. If get a sore throat, get on top of it ASAP. Try to prevent from become cold. 6. Gargle daily with salt water, lemon or vinegar to kill viruses in your throat. 7. Wear gloves when u go out and don't touch your face 8. Wipe down all surfaces with disinfectant or hot, soapy water including keyboards, desks, computer mouse, screens and computer monitors, don't share pens. Virus can live on on plastic, paper and stainless steel. Is stronger on non porous surfaces like stainless steel and plastic. Doorknobs, taps, hand sanitised and soap dispensers pumps, don't touch with bare hands. 9. Stay healthy by eating lots of fresh fruit and veggies, more zinc and vitamin C. 10. Stay at home to protect yourself and others 11. Avoid non essential travel. 12. Reduce use of public transport, don't touch handrail, car doors, etc 13. If take taxi wipe down everything with disinfectant, have shower immediately and wash clothes 14. Don't share food utensils, headphones, etc 15. Wash hands often 16. Wear gloves when you go out. 16. If in apartment building, disinfectant or clean communal washing machines before use 17. Disinfect recording booths & studios with wipes, spray microphone filters with Glen 20.
Wendy | 22 March 2020


I think that Wendy's detailed and earnest fervorino ticks all the boxes except, perhaps, to remind her readers not to sally forth from our places of social isolation without sounding an alarm and yelling 'Unclean'. Then, perchance, we would finally come to deal with the problem of paranoia to which she so subtly alludes in her voluminously instructive post.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 24 March 2020


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