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Keep your distance

  • 17 March 2020
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.

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