Does coronavirus spread more easily in cold temperatures? Here’s what we know



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Sarah Pitt, University of Brighton

Why is the reported number of COVID-19 cases rising across Europe now? Many countries ended their full lockdowns at the start of the summer, but it wasn’t until the autumn that most places began to see a significant increase in the spread of the virus again. The re-opening of schools and universities led to greater mixing of individuals from different households, but could the fall in outside temperatures also be playing a part?

We know that more people get colds and flu in the winter (the colds can be caused by types of coronavirus), but there are several potential reasons for this. It’s often attributed to the fact that people spend more time indoors when it’s colder, coughing, sneezing and breathing on each other.

You are more likely to choose the option of travelling on a crowded bus or train than walking or cycling to work when the weather is cold and wet. Another theory is that people produce less vitamin D when there is less sunlight and so have weaker immune systems.

However, studies have shown that the annual increase in colds and flu particularly coincides with when the temperature outside and relative humidity indoors are lower. Flu viruses survive and are transmitted more easily in cold, dry air. So it’s reasonable to think that the same may be true for the COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which has a similar size and structure.

Laboratory experiments with coronaviruses and similar viruses have shown that they do not survive well on surfaces when the temperature and relative humidity are high, but comfortable room temperature could be an ideal environment for them to last for several days. And at refrigeration temperatures (4℃) and low relative humidity, they could last a month or more.

As it happens, there have been repeated reports of outbreaks of COVID among workers in meat-packing factories, which operate under these kind of conditions. However, such factories also contain large numbers of people working close together and shouting to be heard above the noise of machinery, which evidence suggests may be more likely to spread the virus. Their shared living conditions may also encourage transmission.

Old and young man sat talking outside
Flu viruses are transmitted more easily in cold, dry air.
Halfpoint/Shutterstock

The lessons from the other coronaviruses that have appeared during the 21st century (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV) also tell a slightly different story. A study tracking the weather during the 2003 Sars epidemic in China suggested that the peak of the infections occurred during spring-like weather conditions. (There was no way of confirming this through follow-up studies since the virus later died out.)

Regular outbreaks of Mers also happen in the spring (March to May) in the Middle East. However, this may be less to do with the weather and more related to camel biology. Humans can acquire Mers from each other or from camels. Young camels are a major source of infection and new animals are born during March.

Southern hemisphere

We can also look at what happened in the southern hemisphere during winter there. South Africa has reported over 700,000 cases and experienced a large peak in July, but New Zealand controlled the infection very well and had fewer than 2,000 cases of COVID-19.

These two countries are very different in many respects, so it’s not that useful to directly compare them. But it does seem like the colder weather during July and August was probably not the main factor in deciding their infection rates. New Zealand seems to have kept the spread of SARS-CoV-2 at bay due to geography, the quality of the healthcare system and the effectiveness of the public health response. It might have been able to do that whatever the weather.

Early data from Australia suggested that low humidity would be a factor to look out for and was a better guide to risk of increases in COVID-19 than temperature. However, in Melbourne, there was a large outbreak in July coinciding with a spell of cold weather. This led to a strict lockdown, although it was only fully eased in October.

In all, it seems like a good idea to be prepared for more COVID-19 cases during the colder months. But the one thing we have learned for sure from SARS-CoV-2 is that new viruses can surprise us.

We also know that coming into close contact with others provides an opportunity for the virus to spread, whatever the weather. So we must keep physical distance between people who do not live in the same household and continue to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces whenever possible.

Unfortunately, we will only learn exactly how changes in the weather affect the pandemic by living through it.The Conversation

Sarah Pitt, Principal Lecturer, Microbiology and Biomedical Science Practice, Fellow of the Institute of Biomedical Science, University of Brighton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Achieving COVID-19 herd immunity through infection is dangerous, deadly and might not even work



Under relaxed public health restrictions, deaths will spike far before herd immunity is achieved.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Steven Albert, University of Pittsburgh

White House advisers have made the case recently for a “natural” approach to herd immunity as a way to reduce the need for public health measures to control the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic while still keeping people safe. This idea is summed up in something called the Great Barrington Declaration, a proposal put out by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank.

The basic idea behind this proposal is to let low-risk people in the U.S. socialize and naturally become infected with the coronavirus, while vulnerable people would maintain social distancing and continue to shelter in place. Proponents of this strategy claim so-called “natural herd immunity” will emerge and minimize harm from SARS-CoV-2 while protecting the economy.

Another way to get to herd immunity is through mass vaccinations, as we have done with measles, smallpox and largely with polio.

A population has achieved herd immunity when a large enough percentage of individuals become immune to a disease. When this happens, infected people are no longer able to transmit the disease, and the epidemic will burn out.

As a professor of behavioral and community health sciences, I am acutely aware that mental, social and economic health are important for a person to thrive, and that public health measures such as social distancing have imposed severe restrictions on daily life. But based on all the research and science available, the leadership at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and I believe this infection-based approach would almost certainly fail.

Dropping social distancing and mask wearing, reopening restaurants and allowing large gatherings will result in overwhelmed hospital systems and skyrocketing mortality. Furthermore, according to recent research, this reckless approach is unlikely to even produce the herd immunity that’s the whole point of such a plan.

Vaccination, in comparison, offers a much safer and likely more effective approach.

A graphic showing a collage of blue paper faces with a few isolated red faces
When enough of a population is immune to a virus, the immune people protect the vulnerable.
Wildpixel/iStock via Getty Images

An uncertain path to herd immunity

Herd immunity is an effective way to limit a deadly epidemic, but it requires a huge number of people to be immune.

The proportion of the population required for herd immunity depends on how infectious a virus is. This is measured by the basic reproduction number, R0, how many people a single contagious person would infect in a susceptible population. For SARS-CoV-2, R0 is between 2 and 3.2. At that level of infectiousness, between 50% and 67% of the population would need to develop immunity through exposure or vaccination to contain the pandemic.

The Great Barrington Declaration suggests the U.S. should aim for this immune threshold through infection rather than vaccination.

To get to 60% immunity in the U.S., about 198 million individuals would need to be infected, survive and develop resistance to the coronavirus. The demand on hospital care from infections would be overwhelming. And according to the WHO estimated infection fatality rate of 0.5%, that would mean nearly a million deaths if the country were to open up fully.

The Great Barrington Declaration hinges on the idea that you can effectively keep healthy, infected people away from those who are at higher risk. According to this plan, if only healthy people are exposed to the virus, then the U.S. could get to herd immunity and avoid mass deaths. This may sound reasonable, but in the real world with this particular virus, such a plan is simply not possible and ignores the risks to vulnerable people, young and old.

You can’t fully isolate high-risk populations

The Great Barrington Declaration calls for “allowing those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally … while protecting those who are at highest risk.” Yet healthy people can get sick, and asymptomatic transmission, inadequate testing and difficulty isolating vulnerable people pose severe challenges to a neat separation based on risk.

First, the plan wrongly assumes that all healthy people can survive a coronavirus infection. Though at-risk groups do worse, young healthy people are also dying and facing long-term issues from the illness.

An older woman in a mask reaching to grab a can of food at a grocery store.
Grocery stores have been giving older and at-risk shoppers time to shop away from other people, but knowing whether the store employees are infected is not easy.
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Second, not all high-risk people can self-isolate. In some areas, as much as 22% of the population have two or more chronic conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19. They might live with someone in the low-risk group and they still must shop, work and do the other activities necessary for life. High-risk individuals will come in contact with the low-risk group.

So can you simply guarantee that the low-risk people who interact with the high-risk group are uninfected? People who are infected but not showing symptoms may account for more than 30% of transmission. This asymptomatic spread is hard to detect.

Asymptomatic spread is compounded by shortcomings in the quality of testing. Currently available tests are fairly good, but do not reliably detect the coronavirus during the early phase of infection when viral concentrations can be low.

Accordingly, identifying infection in the low-risk population would be difficult. These people could go on to infect high-risk populations because it is impossible to prevent contact between them.

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Sweden’s herd immunity failure

Without sharp isolation of these two populations, uncontrolled transmission in younger, healthier people risks significant illness and death across vulnerable populations. Both computer models and one real-world experiment back up these fears.

A recent U.K. modeling effort assessed a range of relaxed suppression strategies and showed that none achieved herd immunity while also keeping cases below hospital capacity. This study estimated a fourfold increase in mortality among older people if only older people practice social distancing and the remainder of the population does not.

But epidemiologists don’t have to rely on computer models alone. Sweden tried this approach to infection-based herd immunity. It did not go well. Sweden’s mortality rate is on par with Italy’s and substantially higher than its neighbors. Despite this risky approach, Sweden’s economy still suffered, and on top of that, nowhere near enough Swedes have been infected to get to herd immunity. As of August 2020, only about 7.1% of the country had contracted the virus, with the highest rate of 11.4% in Stockholm. This is far short of the estimated 50%-67% required to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus.

Two gloved hands holding a syringe and vaccine vial.
Vaccines offer a safe pathway to immunity for both the healthy and the vulnerable.
AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

Exposure versus vaccination

There is one final reason to doubt the efficacy of infection-based herd immunity: Contracting and recovering from the coronavirus might not even give immunity for very long. One CDC report suggests that “people appear to become susceptible to reinfection around 90 days after onset of infection.” The potentially short duration of immunity in some recovered patients would certainly throw a wrench in such a plan. When combined with the fact that the highest estimates for antibody prevalence suggest that less than 10% of the U.S. population has been infected, it would be a long, dangerous and potentially impassable road to infection-based herd immunity.

But there is another way, one that has been done before: mass vaccination. Vaccine-induced herd immunity can end this pandemic the same way it has mostly ended measles, eradicated smallpox and nearly eradicated polio across the globe. Vaccines work.

Until mass SARS-CoV-2 vaccination, social distancing and use of face coverings, with comprehensive case finding, testing, tracing and isolation, are the safest approach. These tried-and-true public health measures will keep viral transmission low enough for people to work and attend school while managing smaller outbreaks as they arise. It isn’t a return to a totally normal life, but these approaches can balance social and economic needs with health. And then, once a vaccine is widely available, the country can move to herd immunity.The Conversation

Steven Albert, Professor and Chair of Behavioral and Community Health, University of Pittsburgh

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: we’ll never cut unemployment to 0%, but less than 4% should be our goal



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Richard Holden, UNSW

One of the most concerning things that happens in any recession is the spike in unemployment. The COVID-19-induced recession in Australia and around the world is no exception – other than perhaps the magnitudes involved.

Being out of work is distressing, even in advanced economies with a social safety net (like Australia). Welfare payments rarely, if ever, replace the full loss of income from employment.

In many countries, such as the US, unemployment benefits expire after a certain period of time. This puts the unemployed at risk of being destitute. In Australia (and other countries) receiving unemployment benefits requires proving you are actively looking for work. These obligations can be quite onerous, even if well-intentioned.

Worse still, being unemployed can tilt the scales against an employer offering you a job.

As MIT and Harvard economists Robert Gibbons and Lawrence Katz noted in a landmark 1991 paper, if employers have some discretion over whom to lay off – as is often the case – the labour market will rationally infer that laid-off workers are less desirable employees.

High unemployment also leads to what economists call “labour-market scarring”. This means all those starting work in a bad labour market can suffer long-term economic effects. Either because they don’t get on the job ladder as early as they would have, or because they start off in a job that doesn’t build their skills as well as would have been the case in a strong economy.


Rarely has Australia’s unemployment rate fallen below 5%

Seasonally adjusted.
ABS Labour Force

These effects can be significant and are of particular concern during this pandemic, as University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson has pointed out in an excellent paper on how to mitigate those effects.

Finally, a job also has non-financial benefits. As US presidential candidate Joe Biden has rightly reminded us, a job is about more than a paycheque:

It’s about dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about being able to look your kid in the eye and say everything will be okay.

All of this points to why policy makers need to make low unemployment one of their core missions.

This involves central banks using monetary policy to reduce unemployment and smooth out the business cycle, and governments using fiscal policy to boost demand when it is flagging.

Searching for jobs

That said, there are two important imperfections in labour markets that make some amount of unemployment inevitable. The first is that employers and employees need to be matched together. This involves workers searching for the right job – a process that takes time.

As Peter Diamond, awarded the 2010 Nobel prize in economics for his pioneering work on “search theory”, has observed:

We have all visited several stores to check prices and/or to find the right item or the right size. Similarly, it can take time and effort for a worker to find a suitable job with suitable pay, and for employers to receive and evaluate applications for job openings.

Indeed, searching for better matches between employers and employees is an important contributor to labour market efficiency. As Diamond noted, in the US on average 2.6% of employed workers have a different employer a month later. Some people spending some time unemployed is part of a healthy labour market.

A second important friction was pointed out by another Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz (joint winner of the economics prize in 2001 for his work on asymmetric information).

Efficiency wages

That is, employers might not want to pay their workers the bare minimum they can get away with. Paying above market – what is called an “efficiency wage” – can induce workers to work harder and more efficiently, because the prospect of losing their job is even more painful.

Another way to think about this was offered by George Akerlof (co-winner of the 2001 Nobel economics prize with Stiglitz and A. Michael Spence).

Akerlof brought insights from sociology into economics by viewing the contract between employers and employees as, at least in part, about “gift exchange”. As he put it:

According to this view, some firms willingly pay workers in excess of the market-clearing wage; in return they expect workers to supply more effort than they would if equivalent jobs could be readily obtained (as is the case if wages are just at market clearing).

What is ‘full employment’?

These frictions in the labour market mean full employment, practically speaking, is not zero. It’s almost surely not 1% or 2%, either. The level depends, in part, on how brutal we are willing to make being unemployed. It also depends on the level of the minimum wage.

I, for one, am glad Australia does not cut off unemployment benefits after 16 weeks
(as in the US state of Arkansas) and consign the jobless to abject poverty. I’m also glad Australia’s national minimum hourly wage is A$19.84 (about US$14) – double the US federal minimum of US$7.25.

Does that make unemployment higher here than in countries that take a harsher approach? It does. But it also makes us a more compassionate and empathetic society that takes human dignity seriously.

So when federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said a few weeks ago that once Australia’s unemployment rate is “comfortably below 6%” the task of “budget repair” should begin, I gasped.




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If “comfortably below” means something like 4%, then fine.

Because of the labour market frictions mentioned above, and our approach to unemployment benefits, it’s going to be hard to get unemployment much below that in Australia.

But the idea we should tolerate unemployment of, say, 5.5% in normal times is, frankly, intolerable. Monetary and fiscal authorities should use all the firepower at their disposal to avoid that outcome.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 slashed health-care use by more than one-third across the globe. But the news isn’t all bad



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Ray Moynihan, Bond University and Loai Albarqouni, Bond University

It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. One is how often we access health care.

We’ve conducted what we believe is the first systematic review on this topic, bringing together studies documenting changes to health-care use during COVID-19 from around the world.

We found a 37% reduction across all parts of the health system, from February to May this year, compared to the same period in previous years.

Many people will suffer as a result of having missed out on lifesaving care, such as for heart disease or cancer. But others may benefit, by avoiding care they did not need in the first place.

Dramatic drops across all categories

Together with a global team of researchers and doctors, we identified 81 studies from 20 countries, including Australia. It’s important to note our work is currently undergoing peer review, although in keeping with much pandemic-related research, it’s available as a preprint.

Between February and May 2020, those studies reported on around 7 million health services, such as having a scan or an operation, compared to roughly 11 million in the same period the year before.

Overall, there was a 37% median reduction across all categories of health care. Visits to seek care, such as going to a GP or the emergency department fell by 42%; admissions to hospital dropped 28%; the use of diagnostic tests fell 31%; and the use of treatments, such as procedures to treat heart disease, dropped by 30%.

The outside of an emergency department in Glasgow, Scotland.
Fewer people are presenting to emergency departments around the world during the pandemic.
Shutterstock

One of the biggest individual studies in our review found a 42% reduction in visits to all United States emergency departments during April. Weekly visits fell from 2.1 million in 2019 to just 1.2 million in 2020. For visits among children the drop was 72%.

A smaller study in Australia found a 37% fall in emergency department visits at two hospitals in Victoria during April.

There are many possible reasons for these trends. For example, people may have stayed away from hospitals for fear of contracting COVID-19. People have also been unable to access some types of health care, as services like elective surgery were suspended.

Rates have bounced back in many places, but some remain significantly lower than previous years. Total admissions to hospitals in New South Wales, for example, were still down in the most recently available figures (up to the end of June).




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In a small number of studies we also found some things increased, including treatments for acute stroke. And future studies will likely find large increases in services such as telehealth.

Reductions are greater for less severe illness

Many of the studies in our review found reductions in use were greater for people with milder illness. That US study found the biggest fall in emergency department attendance was for people with abdominal pain.

Likewise, the Australian study found bigger falls among those with the least acute problems. For example, attendance was lower than expected for people with gastroenteritis and wrist fractures — but there was no change in category 1 triage patients (the most severe who require urgent attention).

Notably, several studies found larger reductions in admission for milder forms of heart attacks than for more severe forms. A large English study in late March found national admissions for the more severe form dropped 23%, while admissions for the milder form dropped 42%.

In terms of mental health, a study from Paris found a 55% reduction in emergency visits in the first four weeks of lockdown, but with greater reductions in visits for anxiety and stress, and smaller reductions for psychotic disorders.

At the height of the pandemic, doctors in Northern Italy found a 68% drop in presentations to children’s emergency departments. The reduction in attendance for the “white” triage category, the minor conditions which don’t require a doctor, was 89%.




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An opportunity to reduce unneeded care

Clearly many people will have been harmed by missing out on needed care. As the authors of the English study on heart attack admissions made clear, public campaigns are important to assure people that visiting hospital is safe. Reluctance to call an ambulance when experiencing severe symptoms, they write, results in “unnecessary deaths and disability”.

But many experts around the world are also seeing this crisis as a potential opportunity to wind back unnecessary care, and to free up resources for those most in need.

The Italian doctors who found significantly fewer children presenting to hospital with mild complaints suggested this has freed resources to “provide critical services to patients suffering from medical emergencies in a timely manner”.

Young happy child sits on hospital bed holding a blue bunny toy.
Studies in our review showed fewer children are presenting to hospital during COVID-19.
Shutterstock

There’s already a lot of evidence about overuse of medical services and overdiagnosis, also known as low-value care. Examples include the inappropriate use of antibiotics and opioids, unnecessary diagnoses of prostate cancer, and the overuse of CT scans for children.

As health systems continue responding to the pandemic and deal with the urgent backlog of care, addressing this harmful waste becomes even more pressing.




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Commentators in the British Medical Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine, and influential doctors’ groups, have echoed this view.

The tragedy of the pandemic has underscored the importance of reducing unnecessary and harmful care, and offers us a real opportunity to address this problem.The Conversation

Ray Moynihan, Assistant Professor, Bond University and Loai Albarqouni, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Bond University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From scary pumpkins to bridal bling, how masks are becoming a normal part of our lives in Australia



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Deborah Lupton, UNSW; Ash Watson, UNSW; Clare Southerton, UNSW, and Marianne Clark, UNSW

On Halloween this Saturday, it won’t be just trick-or-treating children who are wearing spooky costumes. Adults handing out sweet treats may also be sporting Halloween-themed face masks, which are now readily available online.

Come the festive season, you will also be able to wear a Christmas-themed face mask as you unwrap gifts with family and friends. You may even find some handmade cloth masks as part of your present haul.




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As social researchers completing a book on face masks during COVID, we are keeping a close eye on the social trends and popular culture related to these simple objects.

We have observed increasing evidence masks are becoming normalised and part of everyday life, noting they are currently compulsory in Victoria. They are now commonly seen in public places around Australia and a thriving industry has sprung up to cater for every possible face mask need.

Before coronavirus, masks were a rarity

Pre-COVID, face masks are commonly worn in parts of Asia for a variety of reasons — including protection from pollution and the sun, personal privacy, and warding off seasonal flu and the common cold.

But in countries such as Australia, masks were rarely seen. A year ago, few Australians would not have given much thought to the humble surgical face mask, or ever considered buying, much less wearing one. Face masks were only for healthcare professionals.

Woman wearing a mask, walking her dog at Brighton Beach.
Masks have become a sign of how much COVID has changed Australian society.
James Ross/AAP

But with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the face mask has taken on a new significance. Even though we were initially advised against wearing them to reduce the spread of coronavirus, state health authorities in NSW and Queensland now recommend face masks should be used in situations where physical distancing is not possible.

The Victorian government has also mandated the use of face coverings for its citizens since the second lockdown in August. Earlier this month, fitted face masks (not bandanas or scarves) were made compulsory every time people leave their homes.

As Victoria opened up earlier this week, Premier Daniel Andrews noted, “masks need to be with us across the whole state for some time to come”.




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In Australia, we haven’t seen the intense political debates and activism around face masks that have emerged in the United States. Compared with the US, Australians tend not to see preventive health as a political issue. In fact, there is evidence of a growing acceptance face masks are becoming part of our everyday lives.

Steady increase in Australians wearing masks

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the proportion of Australians wearing face masks has steadily increased over the past few months.

Back in April, only about 17% of Australians reported wearing a face mask as part of their precautions against COVID-19.

By September, this number had increased dramatically. In total, 66% of Australians reported wearing a face mask “in the past week”.

Not surprisingly, the figures were much higher for people in Victoria, with 97% of reporting they wore a face mask. Even in New South Wales, where there have been sporadic but well-controlled outbreaks of COVID-19, most people (78%) were masking up.

It is notable that in all other states and territories, 23% reported wearing a mask in the past week at the time of the survey. This shows significant normalisation of mask-wearing, even when it’s not recommended by health authorities.

Woman wears a mask during a Lions AFL game at the Gabba in Brisbane.
An increasing number of people around Australia are wearing masks.
Darren England/AAP

Other surveys have also shown significant levels of support for mask wearing.

An ABC survey conducted in September found two-thirds of Australians agreed mask use should be mandatory in all public places. Meanwhile, an August Australian National University study revealed some interesting findings when it comes to different social groups.

It found 39% of surveyed Australians said they mostly or always wore masks indoors in public places, while 37% did so outdoors in public places. Younger Australians (aged 18 to 24 years) and older Australians (aged 75 years and over) were more likely to be mask wearers, as were those who spoke a language other than English at home, had a university education, and lived in a capital city.

A mask for every occasion

In the course of writing our book, we have noticed some fascinating developments in how face masks are portrayed in popular culture. In addition to being available in a range of prints and fabrics (including Australiana themes), there are face masks for every occasion and milestone.

Masks are promoted as a new form of bridal wear, with luxury face masks embellished with beads, diamantes and lace. Wedding guests may also find customised face masks as gifts to wear as part of the celebrations.

Bride wearing a white bridal face mask.
Customised face masks and now being marketed to brides.
http://www.shutterstock.com

There is also a wide range of customised masks on offer for footy matches, birthdays, baptisms, bar and bat mitzvahs, first communions and even funerals (“in loving memory…”).

These new ways of presenting and decorating masks demonstrates they are becoming not only part of everyday life, but also central elements of special occasions during COVID times.

Wearing a mask is more than showing the wearer is taking a responsible, caring approach to protecting others’ health. Masks are now also part of a culture of decoration and fashion. So they are not just a preventive health device but a mode of self-expression.

Are face masks here to stay?

Of course COVID and its path through our society is unpredictable. But it is highly likely COVID outbreaks will continue to occur well into 2021 and possibly beyond, and mask wearing will continue to be promoted as one of the key measures to contain the spread in these situations.




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In some countries pre-COVID, face masks had already become part of everyday life. Our research suggests the widening meanings, purposes and diversity of face masks could support a normalisation of masking in Australia, even once the critical phase of the pandemic has passed.

This will not necessarily mean that people will automatically wear them every day. But they are likely to have a selection of different styles waiting, ready to be used for higher-risk public activities or even special occasions.The Conversation

Deborah Lupton, SHARP Professor, Vitalities Lab, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Centre, UNSW; Ash Watson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vitalities Lab, UNSW; Clare Southerton, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vitalities Lab, UNSW, and Marianne Clark, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vitalities Lab, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How COVID all but killed the Australian CBD



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Paul J. Maginn, University of Western Australia and Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

The central business district has historically been the beating heart of metropolitan regions across Australia. The polished glass and steel high-rise offices, hotels and apartment complexes stand as monuments to architectural, construction, engineering and, of course, economic success.

CBD-based workers and visitors, plus increasing residential densities, have played a major role in sustaining the diversity and vibrancy of retailing in our capital cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. The impacts on CBDs across Australia’s capital cities have been devastating.

We explore these impacts city by city in this article. In a second article, we consider the implications of the loss of CBD activity for our cities.

In urban planning terms, CBDs have long stood at the apex of the activity centre hierarchy. They are key nodes of employment and consumption for the services, hospitality and retail sectors. Most CBD workers and shoppers travel from middle and outer suburbs.

Globally, however, the retail sector has experienced profound changes over the past 5-10 years. The result is so-called “dead malls” in the US and the “death” of the high street in the UK.

In Australia, CBD-based retailing has been on life support for most of 2020. At times Australian CBDs, especially Melbourne, and some shopping centres have resembled ghost towns.

A hollowed-out CBD

Data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports provide insights into visitor trends to retail/recreation places at a range of scales – national, state and local government area. The Google data show percentage changes in visitor numbers from a baseline day: “the median value from the 5-week period Jan 3 – Feb 6, 2020”.

For the two weeks from February 15-29, average visitor numbers to retail/recreation places across all major capital cities were above their baselines. Adelaide led the way with numbers up by 23.2%. Melbourne (8.5%) and Sydney (5.8%) were performing relatively well. Brisbane’s footfall was up by only 0.7%; below the national average of 1.3%.

Adelaide’s numbers were 56% and 50% above the city baseline on February 29 and March 7. Two factors explain this: the Adelaide Festival was on; and March 6-9 was a long weekend public holiday in South Australia.

The arrival of COVID-19 in late February and government responses had a dramatic impact on visitors to retail/recreation places across all capital cities. CBD-dominant local government areas (LGAs) – Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney – were more badly affected than Hobart and Brisbane whose metropolitan regions are defined by a single LGA.

As can be seen below, visitor numbers began to decline in early March. Perth’s numbers fell by 42% on March 2. A week later, March 9, numbers in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart fell by 10%, 19% and 34% respectively. Sydney experienced its first double-digit decline (19%) on March 14.

From mid-March the numbers went into free fall across all state capitals.

Nationally, retail/recreation visitors were down 76% by April 10. CBD-dominant LGAs were even more dramatically affected. Perth was down by 95%. Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart were close behind at -93%, -92% and -90% respectively. Brisbane (down 80%) was the least affected capital city.

All these capitals began to experience a rebound in visitor numbers from mid-April through to late July. Brisbane led the way as numbers climbed back to their highest levels, 3% below its baseline, on July 19. Perth was 12% below baseline on the same day.

Empty shop up for lease
Some CBD businesses, like this one in Perth, didn’t survive the plunge in visitor numbers.
Paul Maginn, Author provided

The return of retail/recreation visitors in Sydney has been a slow, bumpy process and lagged well behind the national trend. The city’s best visitor numbers for the April-July period were on July 4 with -32%. Sydney did not surpass these numbers until October 4 when visitors were 30% below its baseline.

Melbourne’s best day since its low of -95% on April 10 was June 20 when footfall was down by 53%. The second lockdown in early August sent Melbourne’s visitor numbers plummeting again, to -90% on August 22. As of October 16, the city had made a small recovery with numbers down by 85%.




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‘Localism’ on the rise

As a result of many people, especially casuals, losing their jobs and large numbers of office-based CBD workers working from home, the suburbs have emerged as the dominant space of retail/recreation activity in metropolitan Australia.

The data clearly show retail/recreation numbers in outer-suburban LGAs were much less affected than CBD-dominant LGAs. In other words, a new sense of “localism” has emerged.

The table below provides an overview of the changes (average, median, minimum and maximum) in visitors to retail/recreation places nationally and for 30 LGAs from across the capital city metropolitan regions from February 15 to October 16.

Nationally, numbers were down almost 20% on average, with a low of -76% on April 10. Nineteen LGAs performed above the national average. Most of these were traditional outer-suburban LGAs in Adelaide, Perth and Sydney.

Summary of retail/recreation visitor numbers by CBD and outer-suburban LGAs (Feb 15 – Oct 16, 2020)
Data: Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, Author provided

Unsurprisingly, average visitor numbers in Melbourne’s outer suburban LGAs were well below the national trend. But so too were numbers for the Gold Coast (-22.45%) and Parramatta (-24.16%), Sydney’s so-called second CBD.

The charts below provide detailed overviews of daily trends for CBD-based and outer-suburban LGAs across Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Overall trends in CBD and outer-suburban LGAs across the state capitals have followed similar trajectories. However the fall in numbers has been much more severe in CBD-dominant LGAs, while recovery has been more rapid in outer suburban LGAs.

Perth and Adelaide have fared better than Australia’s two powerhouse CBDs – Sydney and Melbourne. This is largely due to a combination of factors including: more effective management of COVID-19; smaller and less dense populations; and fewer international and interstate visitors.

The rebounds in Adelaide and Perth, albeit still below baseline, and the upcoming Christmas shopping period offer a glimmer of hope for CBD retailers in Sydney and Melbourne.

Now that the hard lockdown in Melbourne has ended, we are likely to see an immediate rebound in visitor numbers. However, given how low numbers have fallen, a return to “normality” – a dominant CBD – seems a long way off.

CBD retailers will likely continue to endure the legacy impacts of COVID-19 when this pandemic eventually passes. And they face wider structural challenges from within the wider retail sector, which we discuss in our second article.The Conversation

Paul J. Maginn, Associate Professor of Urban/Regional Planning, University of Western Australia and Gary Mortimer, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor politicians need not fear: Queenslanders are no more attached to coal than the rest of Australia



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Bruce Tranter, University of Tasmania and Kerrie Foxwell-Norton, Griffith University

It’s written into electoral folklore that Labor was wiped out at the 2019 federal election because Queensland didn’t like its position on coal. As the story goes, Labor’s lukewarm support for the Adani coal mine and its ambitious climate policies antagonised Queensland’s mining communities and cemented another Coalition term.

But our recent research casts doubt on this conventional wisdom. Our findings challenge claims that the issue of new coal mines in Queensland was largely to blame for Labor’s election loss.

We examined how support for coal mines was linked to voting at the last federal election. We found Queensland voters supported new coal mines, and this was definitely a factor in the federal election. But the influence of coal mines as an election issue in Queensland was similar to that in most other mainland states.

Queenslanders head to the polls tomorrow to decide the state election. Throughout the campaign, the Palaszczuk Labor government has vocally backed expansion of the resources industry – but our research suggests the issue will not necessarily decide the election result.

Annastacia Palaszczuk being heckled
Annastacia Palaszczuk has strongly backed the Queensland resources industry.
AAP/Darren England

A shock loss

After Labor lost the election in May 2019, many analysts and commentators – not to mention the party itself – were left scratching their heads. Labor had been thumped in what was billed as the climate change election, despite its policy on cutting greenhouse gas pollution being far more ambitious than the Coalition’s.

Labor had pledged to cut Australia’s emissions by 45% between 2005 and 2030. It wanted renewable energy to form half the electricity mix by 2030 and would have implemented an emissions trading-type scheme to limit pollution from industry.

During the campaign, Labor was accused of fence-sitting on the Adani coal mine. Leader Bill Shorten had stopped short of saying it shouldn’t proceed, instead insisting it should stack up environmentally and financially, and should not receive Commonwealth funding.

On election night, Labor received an electoral walloping in Queensland, and its messaging on coal and climate was widely blamed.




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Several commentators, and even Coalition MPs, said the government owed its re-election to a convoy of anti-Adani protesters, led by former Greens leader Bob Brown, which travelled through Queensland and purportedly alienated voters.

While the Coalition strongly supported the construction of new coal mines, Labor struggled to articulate its position – wedged between its blue-collar base in regional areas, and urban voters concerned about the environment.

After the election, Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon conceded Labor’s positioning on the Adani mine overlooked the importance of investment and jobs, and left coal miners worried.

But does the empirical evidence support the view that Labor lost Queensland – and the election – over the issue of coal?

Bill Shorten and wife Chloe Shorten
Bill Shorten’s election defeat was largely attributed to the Queensland coal issue.
David Crossling/AAP

Our surprise findings

To answer this questions, we examined data from a 2019 national survey, the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). The data indicated 46% of Australians supported the construction of new coal mines, and 52% were against.

On average, people who favoured new coal mines tended to be Coalition supporters, less likely to have a tertiary education, more likely to be men than women and were older than average. In contrast, those who accept that human-driven climate change is occurring tend to be tertiary-educated Greens or Labor supporters. They are more likely to be women than men and are younger than average.

Support for new coal mines declined as interest in politics increased in NSW and Victoria. Yet in Queensland and (to a lesser extent) Western Australia, the pattern was very different. In these so-called “mining states”, support for new coal mines increased with political interest.




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What’s more, as interest in politics increased among Labor identifiers, support for new coal mines decreased. However as political interest increased among Coalition identifiers, support for new mines increased.

These results suggest coal mines influenced voting behaviour in regional and remote areas of Queensland in the 2019 election.

However, our research also suggests the issue was no greater a factor for voters in Queensland than in other states. Those who supported new mines were more likely to vote for the Coalition than for Labor. But the association between new coal mines and voting was not stronger in Queensland than in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia or Western Australia.

Coal mine
Queenslanders support for new coal mines is not greater than anywhere else in Australia.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Labor should not abandon climate ambitions

Just days after federal Labor’s 2019 electoral rout in Queensland, Palaszczuk swung into action. Obviously fearing for the electoral prospects of her own government, she ordered state officials to give a “definitive timeframe” on approvals for the Adani mine within days.

The Queensland state election campaign has been dominated by the issues of economic recovery, job creation and infrastructure. Early in the campaign, the Palaszczuk government signed off on a new metallurgical coal mine in the Bowen Basin, further affirming its support for Queensland’s resources industry. Climate action, and the need to move away from coal, has been mentioned in the campaign, but it’s not at the fore.

Federal Labor is still struggling to regroup after its election loss. It has not revealed the emissions reduction targets it will take to the next federal election, and reportedly this month resolved to support the Morrison government in developing new gas reserves.

But at both a state and federal level, Labor should not hasten to back fossil fuels, nor should it abandon an ambitious climate policy agenda. The issue of new coal mines may not be a huge election decider in Queensland after all.




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The Conversation


Bruce Tranter, Professor of Sociology, University of Tasmania and Kerrie Foxwell-Norton, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election



Evan Vucci/AP

Brendon O’Connor, University of Sydney

US President Donald Trump’s path to re-election requires maximising the support of his oft-mentioned “base” — white voters without college degrees — in the key battleground states where he eked out victory in 2016.

This is because Trump’s support among other voters has slipped. According to the Pew Research Centre, he still holds a 60-34% lead over Democratic challenger Joe Biden among whites without a college degree, but Biden has substantial leads among college-educated white voters, as well as Black, Hispanic and Asian voters.

As a result, Trump has a very narrow path to victory that will require high voter turnout by so-called “working-class whites” in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan. Based on the current polls, this path is increasingly unlikely.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. According to Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst from the Cook Political Report, Trump’s base is key.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, he estimates there are about 2.4 million non-college-educated white voters who did not cast ballots in 2016, but could do so this year. As Wasserman notes,

the potential for Trump to crank up the intensity of turnout among non-college whites is quite high.

Trump has spent much time campaigning in Pennsylvania, a state seen as key to his chance of re-election.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

Who are ‘white working-class’ voters?

Whites without a college degree in America are often referred to as the “white working-class”. In truth, this label is used rather loosely.

The “working class” has long been thought of as “blue-collar” factory, trades and construction workers.

But according to US political scientists, the working class today is defined by both education and income levels:

those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median, as reported by the Census Bureau (in 2016, for instance, the median annual household income was nearly US$60,000).

Under this definition, small business owners and various “white collar” workers (those in service jobs) and “pink collar” (jobs traditionally held by women such as caregiving roles) are also considered part of the American working class.




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Working-class voters have long held the key

Working-class voters have long played an outsized role in US elections, despite the fact they have been a minority among wage and salary earners since the 1920s.

Working-class voters, particularly those who belonged to unions, were once steadfast supporters of candidates on the political left. These days, however, the left feels largely abandoned by these voters, while the right is increasingly dependent on them to win elections.

As working-class voters have drifted to the right, the labels used to describe them have changed. In the 1970s, they were called “hard hats”. By the 1980s, they were known as “Reagan Democrats”, and in the early 2000s, “NASCAR Dads”.

In the UK, they have been known as “working-class Tories”, and in Australia, “Howard’s battlers”.

A Trump rally in small-town Wisconsin this month.
KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/EPA

The story of working-class whites abandoning left-wing parties makes for catchy journalistic copy. Each election cycle, there are numerous articles and television vox pops featuring machinists or miners who have moved rightwards, feeling disillusioned with the parties of their parents.

Books like The Inheritance, Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land and What’s the Matter with Kansas? have also tried to capture the essence of this changing working class and why these voters have drifted to the right — and at times, voted against their own economic interest.




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Working-class voters are more complex than we think

The only problem with this narrative is that it is all too neat. In reality, the voting behaviours of the white working class is more complex.

Take for instance Trump’s supporters in the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton. As the data below show, Trump didn’t earn his largest share of votes among the poorest whites in America, but among those in the “middle class” (that catch-all label used to describe everyone between the rich and those living under the poverty line).

More than 10% of white voters with incomes under $30,000 actually voted for a candidate other than Trump or Clinton.



American National Election Studies

So, while Trump won large numbers of white working-class votes compared to Clinton, experts say it isn’t clear he motivated more of these voters to the polls.

Other factors may also have come into play in 2016 that weren’t related to either income or education.

As this chart shows, non-college-educated voters split their voting preferences evenly between Democrats and Republicans as recently as 1996.



Pew Research Center

An accelerated shift to the right began then, resulting in a remarkable 39% margin of support for Trump over Clinton in 2016. For many scholars, this “diploma divide” was the single most important explanation why Trump won.

But many commentators have also pointed to racism and xenophobia to help explain Trump’s rise among these white working-class voters.

According to Identity Crisis, a widely praised book on the 2016 election, Trump successfully “racialised economics” by promoting to white Americans

the belief that undeserving groups are getting ahead while your group is left behind.

Biden shows empathy with working-class voters, but few new ideas

Have the Democrats tried to woo back these white working-class voters in recent elections?

In recent elections, former President Barack Obama, Clinton and Biden have focused much of their economic rhetoric on industrial and construction employment, even though these sectors only make up 20% of all jobs (the rest are in the services sector).

Biden speaking to union members in Pennsylvania.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Most politicians lack the language to explain the reality that most jobs are service jobs. Because of this, it is hardly surprising they also lack good ideas to address unequal wages and poor working conditions within the services sector.

Policies that address economic inequality are the best way to guard against the white working class being drawn to populist figures like Trump. Biden has not offered these voters much more than Clinton did, with the possible exception of more empathy.

But Biden may not need to win over working-class white voters to defeat Trump. With minority voter turnout expected to be high, and fewer white women and elderly voters expected to support Trump, the president’s hopes of winning on a shrinking base are looking ever more remote.




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The Conversation


Brendon O’Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.