Coronavirus: is government really prepared?

Dr Roger Yazbek, Democrats health campaigner

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has caused uncertainty and panic around the world, with governments scrambling to minimise disease spread. We still know little about the virus, but lessons learnt from the H1N1 (or “swine flu”) pandemic of 2009, and significant technological advances, mean researchers are making rapid strides in understanding the new virus’ biology, how it spreads, who is affected, and how lethal it is. This response by the world’s scientists will underpin vaccine development, how to provide best patient care and how to respond to similar outbreaks in future.

The tireless work of scientists is already delivering better outcomes and reduced death rates.

In contrast, the Australian government response has been largely reactive. As fear of the impact that SARS-CoV-2 might have on human health has spread, so have the myths and misinformation. From racial profiling of people of Asian appearance, avoiding Asian eateries, stockpiling of face masks and grocery supplies and even recent reports from the USA that 38% of people wouldn’t buy Corona beer because of a perceived association with coronavirus! 

This is why health and science literacy are important for mitigating not only the transmission of disease, but also preventing broader economic and societal impacts. 

Public health and science literacy are crucial to protecting Australia’s biosecurity interests and for managing a balanced and fact-based response to future public health challenges.

“…the personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise and use information and services to make decisions about health” 

World Health Organisation in defining health literacy

Science literacy is

… the ability to understand the characteristics of science and the significance of science in our modern world, to apply scientific knowledge, identify issues, describe scientific phenomena, draw conclusions based on evidence, and the willingness to reflect on and engage with scientific ideas and subjects.”

Data from a 2006 ABS report on Australian Health Literacy shows almost 60% of Australians did not have a “level of health literacy that would allow them to meet the complex demands of everyday life”. Several groups, including the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, have made recommendations on how we can improve Australian health literacy; however, it remains to be seen whether these recommendations have been implemented or what their effectiveness has been.

Research shows limited health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes, but recent events suggest there are even broader ramifications. For example, recent associations of the coronavirus with all people of Asian appearance is not only racist and creates divisions in our society, but also has no foundation in science or medical fact. Similarly, avoiding all Asian restaurants and businesses will only cause long lasting damage to local economies.  

Given it has now been 10 years since the swine flu pandemic, we must ask, has the Australian government allocated enough money and resources to improve and maintain health literacy in Australia, in order to prepare and safeguard Australians against outbreaks such as SARS-CoV-2? Is the government doing everything it can to direct the public to reputable sources of information and facts about the SARS-CoV-2virus?

Governments must take a leadership role in times of uncertainty and crisis, and it is leadership where this Government is left waning. In an era of misinformation and ‘alternative facts’, the government must provide necessary funding and resources to experts and support clear and concise real-time messaging to the Australian public about the risk that the new coronavirus represents and sensible measures they should taking to mitigate virus transmission. Health experts must be the public face for all information related to SARS-CoV-2, and politicians must take a backseat. 

The new coronavirus pandemic should also be a wake-up call to government that it must do more to invest in Australia’s health and medical research capacity, to safeguard against future health challenges. Whilst the American Government is currently debating about whether to allocate $1.5 billion or $8.5 billion to efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2, which includes $1 billion for vaccine development, last week, the Australian government announced $2 million for research into this new virus. Australia is acknowledged as having developed one of the best and brightest health and medical research workforces in the world.

Our scientists stand ready to do what is necessary to protect the health of all Australians, and indeed, people around the world. However, over the last decade, the government has failed to provide adequate support to the nation’s peak funding body for medical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council. The resulting workforce instability and low morale is not only threatening Australia’s reputation as a leader in medical innovation, but it is putting the lives of Australian’s at risk. 

The Australian government must adopt a funding model for medical research that will provide security for Australia’s health and medical research workforce and also ensure that they are poised to act and deliver when faced when uncertain future health risks such as SARS-CoV-2.

5 proven recommendations from the World Health Organisation to minimise your risk to the new coronavirus:

Wash your hands frequently Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. This can kill the virus that might be on your hands

Maintain social distancing Maintain at least 1 metre distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth Why? Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick

Practice respiratory hygiene Cover your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately.

If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. 


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