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The Australian experience of COVID-19

A contribution by Annetta Mallon 

The Australian experience of COVID-19 is in line with many other countries insofar as we are not prepared for an epidemic outbreak on a large scale. Australia is still reeling from devastating aftereffects of bushfires from November 2019 into early 2020 that saw more than a billion animals die, several extinctions occur, and entire communities be wiped out – to say nothing of an extensive political scandal involving the misuse of funds in a ‘pork barrelling’ that reaches the Prime Minister’s office. Add to this difficult mix at the social/political level the fact that we have a health care system that is state-based, and pandemics require federal-level frameworks and responses, and Australia is struggling to come to terms with a new way of considering health and social mores.

Australia’s PM was the first national representative to declare COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’, pre-empting WHO and other global health authorities, but not surprising from a government strong on three word slogans, but desperately short on policy. It is important to note, too, that the Australian PM is not a health authority/specialist himself. At the time of writing WHO and other health authorities have the level at ‘Very High’, but still not a declared pandemic. Australia’s response has been patchy in terms of border control and general health information dissemination, but as of today, March 3rd 2020, Australians have been urged to forego handshakes and face-kissing when greeting colleagues and friends. Handwashing is strongly encouraged, in line with international best practice – signage is displayed in all hospitals reminding people to use the free hand sanitiser provided by hospital dispensers throughout all buildings, as well as to wash their hands frequently.

I currently have a sinus infection, and spend a good deal of my day explaining to people around me that I am not contagious – I find this instinctive action on my part to reassure the people around me that I am ‘safe’ to be an interesting one. Where I live we have no reported cases, although in Victoria there are now several cases, and my home state has now seen person-to-person transmission. There are no publically-acknowledged plans or strategies apart from “see a doctor if you have a fever”, but elective surgery may be halted to free up hospital beds in anticipation of rising case numbers.

However, one unfortunate rapid response through many levels of Australian society has been a sharp rise in racism and racist behaviours. Australia has a long history of inappropriate responses to people perceived to be ‘non-white’ – including the first nations and Torres Strait Islander peoples – and a virus originating in China has seen a rise in verbal abuse, refusal to spend money with Asian-based businesses (including taxi drivers), and general shunning of the Chinese and pan-Asian communities. As the first cases of COVID-19 (and our first death from the virus) came from a cruise ship and recently a person who travelled back from the known virus hot-spot of Iran, this blaming of the general Australian Chinese communities does not bode well for social interactions as the virus begins to spread.

Social commentators are now speculating about how this virus may boost remote work opportunities for people who would prefer to work from home rather than in an office with a long commute, which is often the Australian workplace reality. And ultimately this may be a sensible health and economic response that helps to boost our ailing economy at this point in time. This one bright point stands in stark contrast to the economic challenges of the Chinese economic slowdown from COVID-19 and its impact on the Australian economy in general. I teach for a university, and many, many international students (a large percentage from China) who were courted to study here by the Australian university system now face high fees and an interruption to their study progression due to travel restrictions as they are unable to attend classes. Part of me is in sympathy with the students, but another part of me is relieved because I understand how travel restrictions halt the spread of infection.

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