People across Australia and the world are concerned about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. This is understandable for a few reasons: the virus is new; it is reasonably infectious; and it can cause serious illness amongst older people and those with chronic health conditions. People and governments are also concerned because of the severe and concerning economic impacts, including the possibility of economic recession and depression. These economic changes have the potential to directly and indirectly impact people’s health in the long term, as we have seen with previous economic crises.
We are right to be concerned about the coronavirus itself but it has been accompanied by something else that is just as ominous and concerning: panic. Panic is rising because of the misinformation that is being shared on various social media platforms and it is has real world consequences. As a fellow public health colleague Daniel Reeders has written, panic stops people from thinking, accessing and understand information clearly. This means that people are even less likely to put that information into behaviour change that is helpful for their health. Panic is contributing to people behaving in unacceptable ways, like buying excessive amounts of supermarket goods, threatening retail or hospital workers, and making racist comments.
Panic also erodes our confidence in trusted institutions like government, the public service and universities – with worrying long term effects for our democracy and society. Panic means people are less likely to trust information that is disseminated by those institutions. As a result, people start doing their own research online, pulling together graphs and analysis based on their own understanding and experience, but with no real guidance on what evidence matters, for whom, when, and why.
For example, governments need a range of different sources of evidence in order to inform their decision-making about major policy interventions like closing schools during a pandemic. These types and forms of evidence may be completely different to the family GP who needs to dispense medical advice to their patients about a new virus. Similarly, infectious disease modelling and epidemiology is complex – it may not make sense to those without a high level of training, skills and guidance to interpret and use this evidence appropriately and effectively.
I work for an organisation that brings researchers and policymakers together to find evidence-informed solutions to big issues. I’m also a former political staffer and candidate for state parliament. I know that being able to access timely, accurate information based on the best available evidence is a vital component during major crises, including disease pandemics. In evolving situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence is constantly updating. Political leaders and health officials have to make decisions for the whole population based on the best available evidence at that point in time. Ideally, they should communicate their reasoning clearly and persuasively to demonstrate that appropriate action is being taken. This helps to build trust, reduce panic and reassure the community.
However while not all of us have the kind of power that political leaders and governments have, we do still have a role to play in reducing panic and building solidarity in the community.
Here are five things you can to do help:
Support public servants and experts who are working to improve government decisions and policies. This includes health department staff as well as subject matter experts. Australia has some of the world’s leading experts in public health, infectious diseases and epidemiology; many of those people work for, or advise, our health departments and ministries, like Prof Jodie McVernon. Acknowledge and trust their expertise. Let friends, family and colleagues know that health departments in Australia have been planning and practising for challenging health scenarios.
Share and follow official government advice. Look at the NSW Health website on COVID-19, which is updated regularly. Have a look at the alerts from the Commonwealth Department of Health. Direct people to these official government websites for accurate information. Be cautious of sharing armchair predictions or medical advice that you might find on social media, particularly home-made graphs – even if they look official!
Understand the difference between professions and what they are saying about COVID-19. Medical doctors are trained clinicians – they have a different set of skills to public health professionals or epidemiologists, as Dr Trent Yarwood has outlined. Even within public health, we have many sub-areas of expertise – for example, people like Prof Julie Leask have particular expertise in communicating about infectious disease.
Take a break from or limit your time on social media. While social media can be a good way to stay in touch with friends and family, it can also heighten anxiety and make people feel powerless – the opposite of what we need to build solidarity and trust. Sometimes we should just switch off – you could FaceTime a comrade, or go for a walk in the park.
Take personal responsibility and practise solidarity daily. Join your union. Support artists, workers (especially casual workers), charities and local businesses whose livelihoods are struggling because of the economic impact of COVID-19. This includes continuing to pay that babysitter, carer, cleaner, trainer or guitar teacher, even if you don’t see them for several weeks. Get in touch with a neighbour or friend who may need help. And of course, make sure you are doing everything you can to stop the spread of the virus: wash hands regularly, practise physical distancing, and stay away from others (particularly vulnerable populations) if you feel unwell. We’re all in this together.
Elly Howse is a public health researcher and advocate. Follow her on Facebook.