Catching COVID from surfaces is very unlikely. So perhaps we can ease up on the disinfecting



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Hassan Vally, La Trobe University

A lot has happened over the past year, so you can be forgiven for not having a clear memory of what some of the major concerns were at the beginning of the pandemic.

However, if you think back to the beginning of the pandemic, one of the major concerns was the role that surfaces played in the transmission of the virus.

As an epidemiologist, I remember spending countless hours responding to media requests answering questions along the lines of whether we should be washing the outside of food cans or disinfecting our mail.

I also remember seeing teams of people walking the streets at all hours wiping down poles and cleaning public benches.

But what does the evidence actually say about surface transmission more than 12 months into this pandemic?

Before addressing this, we need to define the question we’re asking. The key question isn’t whether surface transmission is possible, or whether it can occur in the real world — it almost certainly can.

The real question is: what is the extent of the role of surface contact in the transmission of the virus? That is, what is the likelihood of catching COVID via a surface, as opposed to other methods of transmission?

The evidence is minimal

There’s little evidence that surface transmission is a common way in which the coronavirus is spread. The main way it’s spread is by the air, either by larger droplets via close contact, or by smaller droplets called aerosols. As a side note, the relative role these two routes play in transmission is probably a much more interesting and important question to clarify from a public health perspective.

One of the best commentaries on COVID surface transmission was published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases in July 2020 by Emanuel Goldman, a professor of microbiology from the United States.

As he described, one of the drivers for the exaggerated perception of the risk of surface transmission was the publication of a number of studies showing SARS-CoV-2 viral particles could be detected for long periods of time on various surfaces.

You probably saw these studies because they received enormous publicity worldwide and I remember doing numerous interviews in which I had to explain what these findings actually meant.

As I explained at the time, these studies could not be generalised to the real world, and in some instances the media releases accompanying them tended towards overstating the significance of these findings.

The key issue is that as a general principal the time required for a population of microoganisms to die is directly proportional to the size of that population. This means the greater the amount of virus deposited on a surface, the longer you will find viable viral particles on that surface.

So in terms of designing experiments that are relevant to public health, one of the more important variables in these studies is the amount of virus deposited on a surface — and the extent to which this approximates what would happen in the real world.

If you understand this, it becomes apparent that a number of these virus survival studies stacked the odds of detecting viable virus by depositing large amounts of virus on surfaces far in excess of what would be reasonably expected to be found in the real world. What’s more, some of these studies customised conditions that would extend the life of viral particles, such as adjusting humidity and excluding natural light.

Although there was nothing wrong with the science here, it was the real world relevance and the interpretation that was amiss at times. It’s notable that other studies which more closely replicated real world scenarios found less impressive survival times for three other human coronaviruses (including SARS).

It’s important to note we’re relying on indirect evidence in assessing the role of surface transmission for the coronavirus. That is, you can’t actually do an ethical scientific experiment that confirms the role surface transmission plays because you’d have to deliberately infect people. Despite being such a seemingly straightforward question, it’s surprisingly difficult to determine the relative importance of the various transmission pathways for this virus.

What we have to do instead is look at all of the evidence we do have and see what it’s telling us, including case studies describing transmission events. And if we do this, there isn’t a lot out there to support surface transmission being of major importance in the spread of COVID.

We could save a lot of time and money

We need to put the risks of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 via the various modes of transmission into perspective, so we focus our limited energy and resources on the right things.

This isn’t to say surface transmission isn’t possible and that it doesn’t pose a risk in certain situations, or that we should disregard it completely. But, we should acknowledge the threat surface transmission poses is relatively small.

We can therefore mitigate this relatively small risk by continuing to focus on hand hygiene and ensuring cleaning protocols are more in keeping with the risk of surface transmission.

In doing this, we can potentially save millions of dollars being spent on obsessive cleaning practices. These are probably providing little or no benefit and being done solely because they’re easy to do and provide the reassurance of doing something, thereby relieving some of our anxieties.The Conversation

Hassan Vally, Associate Professor, La Trobe University

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

Maverick Liberal Craig Kelly defects to crossbench, vowing to continue to ‘use my voice’ on controversial COVID treatments


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Liberal maverick Craig Kelly has defected to the crossbench, giving Prime Minister Scott Morrison no warning before his surprise announcement to Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting.

Kelly, who strongly promotes alternative, unproven treatments for COVID said: “If I’m to speak out and to use my voice the best I can, this is the best decision for myself and for the people that I represent.”

Morrison recently dressed down Kelly in an attempt to stop him making comments that could harm the government’s campaign to get maximum take-up of the COVID vaccines.

His move takes away the Coalition working majority on the floor of the House of Representatives – it reduces the government to a one-seat majority, including the speaker’s casting vote. But Kelly said he would support the government on supply and confidence and indicated he did not see anything on its agenda that “I’m going to be objecting to strenuously”.

The member for the Sydney seat of Hughes since 2010, Kelly was considered almost certain to lose Liberal preselection, with a grassroots movement mobilising against him. He was saved from preselection challenges by interventions from Malcolm Turnbull before the 2016 election, and Morrison in the run up to the 2019 election.

Kelly told Sky: “I believe one of the greatest mistakes that’s been made in this country and also the world was prohibiting doctors from prescribing ivermectin and also hydroxychloroquine.

“I believe this was a terrible error.”

He denied he was an anti-vaxxer, which he said was just a “slanderous smear”.

“I support the vaccine program, but in concert, to use the words of our highest credential immunologist, these other treatments should be used in concert with the vaccine.”

He said he had an “obligation” to act on his conscience.

Morrison told a news conference he had learned of Kelly’s action “at the same time he announced it to the party room”.

“We had a discussion a couple of weeks ago.

“I set out some very clear standards and he made some commitments that I expected to be followed through on,” Morrison said.

“He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments and, as a result, he’s made his decision today.

“By his own explanation [in the party room], he has said that his actions were slowing the government down and he believed the best way for him to proceed was to remove himself from the party room and provide the otherwise support to the government so it could continue to function as it so successfully has, which he says is something he remains committed to. So I would expect him to conduct himself in that way.”

Asked at his news conference about one of Kelly’s staff, who is under police investigation for alleged inappropriate conduct towards a young woman in the workplace, Morrison said he had long held concerns about the staffer and Kelly had long known “what my expectations were about how he would deal with that matter.”

The staffer denies the accusations. Kelly has previously defended keeping the staffer on.

Later in parliament, when the opposition asked about Kelly’s staffer, Morrison accused it of “wilfully conflating two different matters”.

“There is the long-held concerns that I have had about the performance of a staff member in the member for Hughes’ office. That is based on the fact that my electorate adjoins that of the member for Hughes and they relate to performance measures that don’t relate to the more sensitive issues that have come up more recently.

“When it was drawn to my attention, I drew them to the attention of the member for Hughes when we met together several weeks ago. He undertook to take certain actions in relation to that staff member. That was not followed through on.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Whopping lead for Labor ahead of WA election, but federal Newspoll deadlocked at 50-50



Richard Wainwright/AAP

Adrian Beaumont, The University of Melbourne

With less than three weeks left until the March 13 Western Australian election, the latest Newspoll gives Labor a 68-32 lead, two-party-preferred. If replicated on election day, this would be a 12.5% swing to Labor from the 2017 election two party result.

Analyst Kevin Bonham describes the Newspoll result as “scarcely processable” and says it is the most lopsided result in Newspoll history for any state or federally.

Primary votes were 59% for Labor, up from 42.2% at the 2017 election, 23% for the Liberals (down from 31.2% in 2017), 2% National (5.4%), 8% Greens (8.9%) and 3% One Nation (4.9%). This poll was conducted February 12-18 from a sample of 1,034.

Premier Mark McGowan had an 88% satisfied rating with 10% dissatisfied (net +78), while Liberal opposition leader Zak Kirkup was at 29% satisfied, 41% dissatisfied (net -12). McGowan led Kirkup as “better premier” by a crushing 83 to 10.

A pandemic boost?

Other recent polls have been strong, albeit less spectacular for Labor. Bonham refers to a January 30 uComms poll that gave Labor a 61-39 lead, from primary votes of 46.8% Labor, 27.5% Liberal, 5.1% National, 8.3% Greens and 6.9% One Nation.

There is also a pattern here. Since the pandemic began, governments that have managed to keep COVID cases down have been rewarded. This includes Queensland and New Zealand Labo(u)r governments at their respective October elections last year.

WA Liberal leader Zak Kirkup.
Zak Kirkup was only elected as WA’s Liberal leader last November.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

McGowan’s imposition of a hard WA border to restrict COVID has boosted both his and Labor’s popularity. There have been relatively few WA COVID cases, and life has been comparably normal with the exception of a five-day lockdown in early February.

Upper house a different story

But it’s not all good news for McGowan. While Labor will easily win a majority in the lower house, it will be much harder for the ALP and the Greens to win an upper house majority. The upper house suffers from both a high degree of rural malapportionment (where there are relatively fewer voters per member) and group ticket voting.

Group ticket voting, in which parties direct the preferences of their voters, was abolished in the federal Senate before the 2016 election, but continues to blight elections in both Victoria and WA.




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Victorian upper house greatly distorted by group voting tickets; federal Labor still dominant in Newspoll


There are six WA upper house regions that each return six members, so a quota is one-seventh of the vote, or 14.3%. While Perth has 79% of the overall WA population, it receives just half of upper house seats.

There is also malapportionment in non-metropolian regions. According to the ABC’s election guide, the south west region has 14% of enrolled voters, the heavily anti-Labor agricultural region has just 6% of voters and the mining and pastoral region 4%. All regions return six members.

Despite the convincing lower house win in 2017, Labor and the Greens combined won 18 of the 36 upper house seats, one short of a majority. Bonham notes if the Newspoll swings were replicated uniformly in the upper house, Labor would win 19 of the 36 seats in its own right on filled quotas without needing preferences.

But group ticket voting and malapportionment could see Labor and the Greens fall short of an upper house majority again if Labor’s win is more like the uComms poll than Newspoll.

Federal Newspoll still tied at 50-50

This week’s federal Newspoll, conducted February 17-20 from a sample of 1,504, had the two party preferred tied at 50-50, the same as three weeks ago. Primary votes were 42% Coalition (steady), 37% Labor (up one), 10% Greens (steady) and 3% One Nation (steady).

Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison look towards the Speaker's chair in Parliament.
Newspoll continues to have the Coalition and Labor neck and neck.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Of those polled, 64% were satisfied with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s performance (up one), and 32% were dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of +32. Labor leader Anthony Albanese dropped five points on net approval to -7. Morrison led Albanese by 61-26 as better prime minister (compared to 57-29 three weeks ago).

During the last week, there has been much media attention on the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins against an unnamed colleague.




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However, it appears the general electorate perceives this issue as being unimportant compared to the COVID crisis. Albanese’s ratings may have suffered owing to the perception that Labor has focussed too much and being too negative on an “unimportant” issue.

Despite Morrison’s continued strong approval ratings and the slump for Albanese, the most important measure — voting intentions — is tied. Since the start of the COVID crisis, there has been a continued discrepancy between voting intentions based off Morrison’s ratings and actual voting intentions.

Newspoll is not alone in showing a close race on voting intentions or strong ratings for Morrison. A Morgan poll, conducted in early to mid February, gave Labor a 50.5-49.5 lead. Last week’s Essential poll gave Morrison a 65-28 approval rating (net +37).

Labor bump in Craig Kelly’s seat

As reported in The Guardian, a uComms robopoll in controversial Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s seat of Hughes has Kelly leading by 55-45. This is about a 5% swing to Labor from the 2019 election result.

Liberal MP for Hughes Craig Kelly.
Liberal MP Craig Kelly has recently been banned by Facebook for promoting alternative, medically unproven COVID-19 treatments on social media.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The poll was conducted February 18 from a sample of 683 for the community group Hughes Deserves Better.

While additional questions are often skewed in favour of the position of the group commissioning uComms polls, voting intention questions are always asked first. However, individual seat polls have been unreliable in Australia.

Trump acquitted by US Senate

As I predicted three weeks ago, Donald Trump was comfortably acquitted by the United States’ Senate on February 13 on charges of inciting the January 6 riots.

The vote was 57-43 in favour of conviction, but short of the two-thirds majority required. Seven of the 50 Republican senators joined all 50 Democrats in voting to convict.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, The University of Melbourne

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

How China is remaking the world in its vision


Natasha Kassam, Australian National University and Darren Lim, Australian National University

This is an edited extract of an essay in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, The March of Autocracy, published today.


It is the year 2049. China is celebrating having reached its second centenary goal – to become a “prosperous, powerful, democratic, civilised and harmonious socialist modernised country” by the 100th anniversary of the people’s republic.

Its economy is three times the size of the United States’, as the International Monetary Fund predicted back in the 2010s. The US remains wealthy and powerful – it has functioning alliances in Europe – but its pacts with Asian allies have fallen into disrepair.

For decades, Hong Kong has been accepted as just another province of China. Few dare to criticise the ongoing human rights abuses there, or in Xinjiang and elsewhere, because of the extraterritorial application of China’s national security laws. Taiwan, if not annexed, is isolated, with no diplomatic partners.

The legacy of Xi Jinping, who led China for more than 30 years, monopolises ideological discourse in China. His successors rule under his shadow.

Outside China, many of the third-wave democracies that transitioned in the second half of the 20th century have become far less liberal. Elections are held, but increasingly authoritarian governments have adopted many of Beijing’s technological and legal tools to manage markets and control politics. The internet is heavily censored.

Mistrust permeates every aspect of China’s relations with the West. International co-operation on climate change and the strong carbon-reduction commitments of the early 2020s have long been abandoned. The focus is on individual adaptation.

Australia remains a liberal democracy and a staunch defender of free markets and human rights. But these are no longer the default standards of global governance – they are minority positions associated mostly with Western traditions. No longer a top-20 economic or military power, Australia’s opportunities to make its mark internationally are few and far between.

An unsettling but plausible vision

This vision of a fragmented and decidedly less liberal international order is highly speculative, but also dispiritingly plausible.

It is unsettling to an Australian reader, not just because Australian foreign policy has been centred on a global set of rules and institutions since 1945, but because Australian identity is so enmeshed with the values of liberal democracy.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper states that Canberra is “a determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights”, in stark contrast to Beijing.




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All nation states, especially rising powers, desire a favourable global environment in which they can acquire power, prosperity and prestige. The postwar system greatly aided China, and it would be incorrect to claim Beijing wants to dismantle it entirely.

Similarly, it would be disingenuous to overlook the many instances where the US and other liberal democracies have behaved inconsistently.

But the Chinese Communist Party, which leads an authoritarian state, sees the liberal values embedded in the present order as a threat to its rule. Unlike the US, which at times ignores or violates these principles, China needs many of them to be suppressed, even eliminated.

As China seeks to remake the international order, the challenge is to understand where and how Beijing’s efforts will undercut its liberal character, and to identify where it is possible to resist.

Chinese state media lauded Xi Jinping as a ‘champion of the UN ethos’ ahead of the UN General Assembly last year.
Andy Wong/AP

How China is changing the world

Rather than upend the existing international system, Beijing’s approach today is to co-opt, ignore and selectively exploit institutions.

Xi has said:

reforming and improving the current international system do not mean completely replacing it, but rather advancing it in a direction that is more just and reasonable.

In late 2019, for instance, the World Trade Organisation’s appellate body ceased to function after the US – complaining about the organisation’s soft stance on China – blocked the appointment of replacement judges.

In many ways, the WTO’s structure is the epitome of a liberal rules-based system: countries relinquish some sovereignty and are bound by judicial decisions in the interests of resolving trade disputes.

In response, China joined with the European Union, Australia and other governments to set up a parallel stop-gap legal mechanism.

This was a reflection of the CCP’s nuanced relationship with the liberal international order. China needs a stable trading system and will agree to binding rules to preserve it. The odd trade dispute does not substantially threaten China’s ideological security.

In the future, Beijing should be expected to exert its influence on the current order. The challenge for states such as Australia is to identify when Beijing’s behaviour exceeds influence and begins to erode the system’s liberal foundations.

China is already skilfully manoeuvring within international institutions to guide their operations, press for reforms and promote the China model.

Chinese nationals run four of the 15 United Nations specialised agencies, including the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Qu Dongyu, the new director general of the Food and Agricultural Organisation.
Riccardo Antimiani/AP

Ironically, the democratic nature of international institutions benefits Beijing. Chinese representatives in a variety of forums, such as the World Health Assembly and committees of the UN General Assembly, muster coalitions of the Global South to ensure favourable votes on issues such as Taiwan’s (non)participation or to counter criticism of its repressive policies in Xinjiang.

China also elevates its government-organised NGOs, presenting an image of independence while drowning out the voices of independent civil society.

The China Society for Human Rights Studies, for example, has official consultative status at the United Nations as an NGO, but is co-located with Chinese government offices and staffed by Chinese government officials. It has vigorously prosecuted China’s human rights agenda.




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The use of deft diplomacy and inducements to generate voting blocs is unsurprising. But China also seeks to change the system, diluting the liberal elements that threaten the China model and thus the CCP’s rule.

For instance, China has already succeeded in weakening the liberal character of international human rights. In 2017, it proposed its first-ever resolution to the UN Human Rights Council, headed: “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights”.

It prioritised economic development above civil and political rights, and put the primacy of the state above the rights of the individual. Despite objections and nay votes from Western members, the resolution passed. The subsequent report by the council’s advisory committee, a body of 18 experts supposed to maintain independence, referred mainly to Chinese party-state documents.

Chinese diplomats also block human rights resolutions at the UN Security Council, such as a February 2020 resolution on the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a UN Security Council briefing in 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

While the US has arguably been similarly obstructive on resolutions about Palestine, it is for the narrow purpose of protecting an ally, rather than the broader project of weakening the rights themselves.

China has even been able to marshal the international system to defend and commend its behaviour in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

In 2020, at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, a joint statement signed by 27 countries, including Australia, expressed concern at arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions in Xinjiang and the national security legislation in Hong Kong.

A competing statement supporting the Hong Kong legislation received support from 53 states, only three of which are considered “free” by the non-governmental organisation Freedom House.

By working within the system to rally a voting bloc, Beijing was able to compromise the world’s peak human rights body. Tactics that have been successful in watering down human rights are now being employed in areas where norms are still being established, such as internet governance.

Preparing for the new world disorder

The history of liberal internationalism is replete with contradictions. Some say that in recent decades it is Washington, not Beijing, that has damaged the order most.

So can China really do more damage to an order already on life support? Liberalism is not just facing an external challenge, but one from within.

The answer requires optimism about liberalism’s capacity to self-correct across the arc of history, and scepticism that illiberalism can do likewise. As much as Donald Trump belittled, criticised and attacked America’s institutions, he also created the conditions for a course correction – Joe Biden’s victory.




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China enters 2021 a stronger, more influential power — and Australia may feel the squeeze even more


The CCP is a well-resourced and well-organised political force. It has the potential to be far more effective than any iconoclastic but capricious populist in permanently weakening the liberal foundations of the global order. Much of China’s influence abroad is unavoidable. A rising power with the economic and military strength that China wields is unlikely to be deterred.

On this logic, optimism has no place. But it would also be mistaken to adopt a fatalistic approach. Instead, Australia and its partners must focus their efforts on those elements of the liberal order most worth preserving and most under threat.

The centenary of the people’s republic is still 28 years away.The Conversation

Natasha Kassam, Fellow, ANU National Security College’s Futures Council, Australian National University and Darren Lim, Senior politics lecturer, Australian National University

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

Can I choose what vaccine I get? What if I have allergies or side-effects? Key COVID vaccine rollout questions answered


Marc Pellegrini, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

Australia’s keenly awaited COVID vaccine rollout begins today, with the ultimate goal of vaccinating all Australians by October.

Here are the answers to some key questions.

Can I choose which vaccine I get?

No, there won’t be a choice for the average person. The current initial rollout of the Pfizer vaccine isn’t enough doses to vaccinate all of Australia. So the first people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine will be frontline health-care workers, including aged care and hotel quarantine officers.

The AstraZeneca vaccine will be produced for the general public. It’s hoped that will be rolled out during March.

I can’t say how the logistics will run — that’s up to the government, presumably on a state-by-state basis. Most likely they will try to prioritise the highest-risk groups such as the elderly and people with chronic health conditions.

For most people it will be a case of waiting for further announcements as to when enough vaccine is available and it’s appropriate to make an appointment. Children are unlikely to be included in the vaccination program.

Infographic on COVID vaccine rollout

The Conversation, CC BY

How will I be monitored for side-effects?

As doctors, when we vaccinate people we generally like to look after them for about 15-30 minutes, just to check they haven’t had an adverse reaction. That should be the practice for the COVID jab, just the same as for any vaccine.

For those 15-30 minutes you will generally just be sitting in a waiting area at the clinic. You will be monitored to see if you develop any symptoms such as hives or a rash, or wheezing. In those cases you would be monitored even more carefully and staff would take your blood pressure and pulse rate.

If you experience any symptoms once you’ve gone home, it would be up to you to contact your local doctor. Obviously, when trying to vaccinate 25 million people, health authorities can’t follow up with every individual. It’s very much up to them to follow up with whoever gave them the vaccine — whether their GP clinic or other health service.




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Should I still have the vaccine if I have an allergy?

That needs to be a conversation between individuals and their doctor, who can advise on a case-by-case basis. But, generally speaking, there are no common allergies that should stop you having a COVID vaccine. If someone has a peanut allergy they can have the vaccine, and the same goes for shellfish, wheat, eggs or any other common allergies.

Some people are allergic to an ingredient called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, which is found in more than 1,000 different medications and is used in the Pfizer vaccine as a mechanism to help deliver the viral mRNA (genetic material) into your cells. In the US and UK vaccine rollouts, a very small proportion of people seemed to have an allergy to this compound: with a million doses you might see about ten people have this allergic reaction. It is rare, albeit less rare than allergic reactions to influenza vaccines.

But no one has yet died from being vaccinated against COVID, so these cases are being captured effectively and are generally detected within the initial observation period of 15-30 minutes. Severe reactions can be treated with an epipen; less severe cases are just monitored.

People might already know they’re allergic to PEG and they shouldn’t receive the Pfizer vaccine, but if they don’t know, there’s no way of knowing that in advance.




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The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doesn’t contain PEG. It contains a related compound called polysorbate, which appears not to trigger the same allergy. If you have a known allergy to PEG you would probably be given the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It’s important to stress that these compounds are not preservatives — they are mechanisms to deliver the vaccines effectively.

Will I be fully protected? Do I still need to follow COVID restrictions?

The two vaccines have different efficacy rates — 95% for Pfizer, 62% for AstraZeneca — but these refer to their ability to prevent infection rather than disease. The fact is both are very good at preventing serious disease.

This means that, although you may still have a chance of being infected, you are much less likely to develop severe symptoms, and therefore less likely to infect others. Someone with severe COVID might be coughing and spluttering and spreading the virus more easily, while someone without symptoms might not.

Bear in mind there are two main reasons for the vaccine rollout. The first is to protect members of the public from getting very ill or dying.

The second aim is to provide a degree of immunity in the general population that will ultimately stop the virus circulating.

Of course, this second goal is much harder, which is why it’s still important that we follow any and all COVID precautions. But the hope is that over time we’ll see fewer and fewer people who are COVID-positive, and the risk of spread will fall.

Federal government information on the vaccine rollout.

Will the vaccine last forever or will I need to be revaccinated in future?

The current COVID vaccines require two doses, several weeks apart. It’s very tricky to say how long the resulting immunity will last, because globally we have only had these vaccines in use since December or so. It’s possible the immunity might last a year or longer, but at the moment it’s unclear. People might well have to be revaccinated at some stage.

We’ll start to get that data soon though. In fact we should have plenty more information by the time the AstraZeneca vaccine starts to be administered in high numbers in Australia around June or July.




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Will the vaccines work against mutant coronavirus strains?

In the fullness of time I expect we’ll start to see “escaped mutant” variants of the coronavirus that can evade the vaccine or make it less effective.

To an extent that’s happened already — the AstraZeneca vaccine looks to be less effective against the South African variant than against the other current variants. Having said that, although it’s not as effective at preventing infection, it still probably has a good chance of stopping you getting seriously sick.

Because we’re not vaccinating everyone in the world, there will always be a pool of people who can incubate new viral strains, potentially giving rise to new mutant variants.

There’s no doubt the vaccines will need to be updated from time to time to deal with this.

Thankfully this process will be relatively straightforward. mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer’s can be tweaked very quickly – virtually overnight – to accommodate new mutants. It’s a bit trickier with non-mRNA vaccines such as the AstraZeneca and Chinese vaccines, but it can still be done.

Will the vaccine rollout mean no more lockdowns?

The vaccine rollout should give us a much firmer handle on the spread of the virus. We can hope to stop seeing hotel quarantine workers being infected and spreading the virus outside, which is what has prompted the recent snap lockdowns in various Australian cities.

As for whether we’ll ever find ourselves in lockdown again, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But if we’re still persisting with hotel quarantine and hosting arrivals from overseas, the vaccine program will hopefully mean we can afford to be much more liberal with opening our borders without fear that the virus will run rife.




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The Conversation


Marc Pellegrini, Researcher, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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

View from The Hill: Craig Kelly’s defection leaves government with razor-thin majority


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Craig Kelly’s jump to the crossbench leaves Scott Morrison’s government looking like the man who suddenly finds his jacket feels a little thin in the wind.

It still has a majority, but not a comfortable one.

The Coalition’s block of 76 in a House of Representatives of 151 members means it does not possess a working majority on the floor. A vote would be tied if Labor and all crossbenchers opposed it.

Its majority of one includes the Speaker, Tony Smith. He has a casting vote in the event of a tie – one that he would exercise in a procedurally conservative manner, to preserve the status quo.

The Coalition’s position is not like that of late 2018, when it fell into minority government as things unravelled after the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull.

But losing a number makes descent into minority more of a possibility – if some unforeseen event took out another government MP. That would put it at greater risk of losing votes.

Kelly has said that, beyond supporting the government on confidence and supply, he will back it on the program it took to the election.

This gives him room to play up on a few measures, if he feels inclined, for example on any legislation relating to climate.

On the other hand, he would be unlikely to find parliamentary bedfellows on his pet issues.

Given the makeup of the crossbench, the government can be confident of its numbers, even if they’ve become a little more precarious.

Rebel Nationals would love to recruit Kelly to their party, to get an extra vote in the cause of removing Michael McCormack from the leadership. But Kelly sees himself as an “independent Liberal”; anyway, he’d have nothing to gain by joining the Nationals (which of course would restore the Coalition numbers).

The government is determined to portray Kelly’s departure in the most positive light it can find. “Good riddance”, is the official informal line.

With his passion for spruiking ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, unproven treatments for COVID, Kelly has been deeply irritating for Morrison. The Prime Minister recently called him into his office for a dressing down, after Kelly’s spectacular corridor clash with Tanya Plibersek.

He wanted Kelly to shut up. Instead Kelly, the zealot with the contrarian cause, is now more than ever on a mission to promote those controversial drugs.

This is the second defector to catch Morrison on the hop.

In 2018 word came of Julia Banks’ desertion when she was on her feet in the House of Representatives. Morrison was giving a news conference at the time.

Kelly on Tuesday only showed his hand in the party room. He said he wanted to tell his colleagues first. But perhaps there was a touch of tit for tat after that bawling out.

For Kelly’s part, he had the choice of an attention-grabbing exit from the Liberal party, or being dispatched from his seat by the preselectors, who would have ensured he’d not be the Liberal candidate at the election.

What harm can Kelly do the government do now?

He can cast an anti government vote now and then.

He can shout his views on COVID treatments and climate change. But he’s done that often enough. Arguably, at least in the mainstream outlets, when he is not talking as a rebel Liberal, what he says on COVID will get less attention. He’ll just be one crossbench voice.

He is signalling he is likely to run as an independent at the election. If he does, he wouldn’t poll well and it’s doubtful his presence would do much harm to the Liberals in his Sydney seat of Hughes.

In what’s a painful fortnight for the government, an element of the Kelly story fed into its problems with handling allegations of rape and sexual misconduct.

A staffer in Kelly’s office, Frank Zumbo, is being investigated over claims of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace (which he denies).

When this matter was raised with Morrison’s office last year by a local reporter via email, it did not answer her.

Morrison on Tuesday said he had spoken to Kelly about both this matter and the staffer’s performance. But Kelly has kept the man on.

The government had a significant win on Tuesday when Facebook agreed, in a deal involving the Coalition making some changes to its legislation, to lift its ban on republishing news on its Australian site.

Any other time, that would have made it a very good day.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who has been under sustained pressure over her 2019 handling of the Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, entered hospital in Canberra on Wednesday morning.

A statement from her office said she “will take a period of medical leave.

“This follows advice from her cardiologist relating to a pre-existing medical condition.” The statement said the hospitalisation was “a precautionary measure”.

Reynolds had been due to address the National Press Club on Wednesday, the same day Higgins is due to lodge her formal complaint with police against the alleged perpetrator of the assault against her, which she says took place in Reynolds’ office in March 2019.

Higgins tweeted her best wishes to Reynolds.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

How do we know the COVID vaccine won’t have long-term side-effects?



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Samantha Carlson, Telethon Kids Institute; Christopher Blyth, University of Western Australia; Lucy Deng, University of Sydney; Margie Danchin, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and Nicholas Wood, University of Sydney

As Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins this week, many people still have questions about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, both in the short and long term.

As vaccine experts, we hear these concerns all the time, and it’s normal to have questions about a vaccine.

The good news is that scientists have already been testing COVID-19 vaccines for months. For starters, serious side-effects are very, very rare. And, together with what we know about previous vaccines, if side-effects are going to occur, they usually happen within a few months after getting a vaccine. This is why international medical regulators, including Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), require the first few months of safety data before approving new vaccines. This, plus information coming from vaccine recipients in the northern hemisphere, gives us confidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.

In fact, most side-effects occur within the first one or two days. And most of these are minor, such as pain at the injection site, fatigue or fever — which are signs your immune system is building a response against the thing you’ve been vaccinated against.

What do we know about long-term side effects?

Since December, more than 200 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine worldwide — more than the total number of people who have been infected with the virus (112 million).

Given the sheer number of vaccines administered to date, common, uncommon and rare side-effects would have been detected by now. What’s more, we’ve been testing these vaccines in clinical trials since mid-2020, and both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have shown excellent safety results.

This gives us confidence the vaccines that’ll be used around Australia are safe.

We’ve also seen some people raise concerns online about mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, being a “new” technology. mRNA (or “messenger” RNA) is found in all living cells. mRNA is a message that tells cells how to make proteins that trigger the immune response inside the body. That immune response is what protects against infection if an individual is exposed to the virus. mRNA is not the same as DNA (your genes), and it cannot combine with our DNA to change our genetic code. mRNA vaccines do not affect or interact with DNA in any way. So we can be assured there’ll be no long-term DNA-altering effects from these vaccines.

What’s more, checking the safety of the vaccines doesn’t just stop after they’ve been registered for use. Once a vaccine has been introduced, ongoing monitoring of its safety is a crucial part of the vaccine development process.

Australia has a robust system for this ongoing monitoring. The system was established to detect any unexpected side-effects from vaccines (if they occur) and ensure they’re investigated promptly. This type of monitoring is standard practise in Australia for vaccines. The data about COVID-19 vaccination collected in these surveillance systems will be published weekly on the TGA website. This should reassure Australians that if there’s a new serious side-effect, we will know about it, communicate it, and act on it quickly.




Read more:
COVID vaccines have been developed in record time. But how will we know they’re safe?


Withdrawal of vaccines after introduction to the general population is a very rare event.
In the United States, a rotavirus vaccine called Rotashield led to a small increase in the number of small intestinal blockages. This prompted its withdrawal in the late 1990s. In Australia, an increased risk of febrile seizures in young children following a specific influenza vaccine was identified in 2010. It was subsequently withdrawn from use in that age group, and we now vaccinate with a different, safer flu vaccine. This vaccine is no longer available in Australia, and has been subsequently reformulated.

Both of these side-effects were observed within weeks of vaccination.

We now have improved monitoring systems in Australia to detect such serious side-effects even sooner, in the general population after clinical trials, than we did a decade ago.

But what about short-term side-effects?

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

The expected side-effects of the Pfizer vaccine have been reported from trials involving roughly 43,000 participants aged 16 years and older from the US, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Half of the participants received the Pfizer vaccine and half received a placebo. And as part of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts around the world, millions of people have already been given this vaccine since December, meaning we have safety data now from both clinical trials and two months of “real world” vaccination.

For those receiving this vaccine in the large clinical trials which started in July 2020, about 80% have reported pain at the injection site. Other common side-effects included fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever.

These were most often reported one or two days after the day of vaccination, and typically only lasted about one day. While some vaccine recipients may need a day off work due to some of these side-effects, this does not indicate the vaccine is unsafe.

In trials, no difference was seen in the rate of severe side-effects between the Pfizer vaccine and placebo. Early in the US program, 21 cases of anaphylaxis were reported. It’s estimated anaphylaxis occurs at a rate of 11 in every one million recipients (0.0011%) of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Most occurred within 15 minutes, and all patients recovered. This is why it’s a good idea though to remain at the vaccine clinic for up to 15 minutes after vaccination so that treatment and care can be provided if necessary.

A further concern was raised in January, after the death of 30 very frail elderly patients in Norway after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. But investigation by the European regulator concluded these weren’t related to the vaccine, but rather to underlying conditions present before vaccination.

Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

This vaccine has been tested in ongoing trials with around 55,000 participants from the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa and the US. About half received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and half a placebo. Millions of doses have been already been administered among the general population, particularly in the UK.

Data from four clinical trials which commenced in April 2020 in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, show the most common side-effects were pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache and muscle pain. Similar to the Pfizer vaccine, there was no difference in the rate of reported severe side-effects for the vaccine compared with the placebo.

Just 0.7% of participants (79 people) from the four clinical trials who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reported a serious side-effect after receiving at least one dose, compared with 0.8% (89 people) of those in the placebo group. No additional safety concerns have been identified since the vaccination program began in the UK.




Read more:
Should I get a COVID vaccine while I’m pregnant or breastfeeding? Is it safe for me and my baby?


If recommended a COVID-19 vaccine, take it

With countries continuing to monitor those who have received vaccines, we should be reassured there are no major safety concerns detected for serious side-effects so far. With millions of people vaccinated already, our confidence about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines is very high.

In Australia, and internationally, we have robust systems in place to continually monitor vaccine safety, ensuring Australians can be safely afforded the protection that COVID-19 vaccines are designed to provide.The Conversation

Samantha Carlson, Post Doctoral Research Officer, Telethon Kids Institute; Christopher Blyth, Paediatrician, Infectious Diseases Physician and Clinical Microbiologist, Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia; Lucy Deng, Paediatrician, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance; Clinical Lecturer, Children’s Hospital Westmead Clinical School, University of Sydney; Margie Danchin, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and Nicholas Wood, Associate Professor, Discipline of Childhood and Adolescent Health, University of Sydney

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

The $50 boost to JobSeeker will take Australia’s payment from the lowest in the OECD to the second-lowest after Greece



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Peter Whiteford, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Bruce Bradbury, UNSW

Fifty dollars sounds like a lot. But the increase in the JobSeeker unemployment benefit announced by Prime Minister Morrison on Tuesday is $50 per fortnight, which is just $25 per week. It will replace the temporary Coronavirus Supplement of $75 per week, which is itself well down on the $275 per week it began at in March last year.

It’s hard to see the increase as anything other than a cut, especially when coupled with another change which will allow recipients to earn other income of only $75 per week before JobSeeker gets cut. That’s down from the present $150 per week.

As the prime minister said, it’s better than it would have been if things returned to the level we had before special coronavirus provisions. At that time, recipients could earn only $53 per week before having their payment reduced.

But it’s not particularly generous. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are quoting senior government sources as saying the $50 per fortnight increase in the rate was the lowest figure the party believed would be palatable to the public.

Morrison justified the increase of $50 per fortnight – rather than $150 (which would have kept what’s left of the coronavirus boost in place) or $100 or any other figure – by saying it will bring the payment to

41.2% of the national minimum wage, which puts us back in the realm of where we had been previously

Taking account of taxes paid and superannuation received by minimum wage workers gives a slightly higher replacement rate of 42.3%. That takes it back to roughly where it was at the end of the Howard government in 2007.

However, there’s no readily apparent reason why that should be a benchmark.

During the life of the Howard government the level of the single payment fell from around 50% of the minimum wage to 42%, meaning what’s proposed will return it to its lowest point relative to other benefits under Howard.


JobSeeker and age pension as a proportion of the minimum wage 1990-2021

Notes: Rates for single adult shown relative to net income when receiving a full-time minimum wage (deducting tax and Medicare levy, and adding employer superannuation contribution). Any casual loading not included. Rates shown at first of each month. Any rent assistance not included. Poverty line is half of median equivalised household income for non self-employed workers. Rates include coronavirus supplement and energy supplement, future rates are estimates.


Morrison also said the increase was the largest permanent increase in the unemployment benefit since 1986. It’s an increase of 9.7%.

During the Hawke and Keating administrations, the payment increased 23% in real terms. During the Whitlam administration it increased 50%. This means that while what’s offered is substantial by the standards of recent decades, it’s less so in the longer run.

But what about the supplements?

Morrison also argued in his press conference JobSeeker is more adequate than the base rate would suggest because

on top of that, if they’re receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance, that payment would increase to $760.40; and on top of that, the average value of stand-alone supplements, the energy supplement and so on, is an additional $13.03. So the suggestion that anyone who was on JobSeeker is simply on that payment alone and there aren’t additional supports that are provided is not correct.

It’s true all people on income support receive the energy supplement (included in the figure above). But for a single person on JobSeeker, the supplement is only $8.80 per fortnight or less than 65 cents a day.

Many people do indeed get rent assistance, but after paying rent they become worse off rather than better off.

That’s because to get the maximum rate of rent assistance for a single person of $140 per fortnight (9% of the minimum wage), that person has to be paying around $310 per fortnight in rent. If that person is paying more, they get no extra help. The maximum is also lower for people in shared accommodation.

Private sector renters are amongst the worst off recipients of income support.




Read more:
Top economists want JobSeeker boosted $100+ per week, tied to wages


Other supplements such as the remote area allowance are indeed available, but are of no help to people who do not live in remote areas and may be inadequate to cover the higher costs involved. Supplements for help with language and literacy are only paid to people in special educational programmes.

Producing an average that includes supplementary payments most people don’t receive is inherently misleading.

How Australia compares

Net replacement rates measure the proportion of previous in-work income that is maintained after several months of unemployment. They are the benchmark used by the the prime minister to compare benefits to the minimum wage.

Using two months in unemployment as the measuring point (and using the most recently published 2019 rankings) before the pandemic, Australia’s replacement rate was the lowest in the OECD — even after rental assistance was added in.


Unemployment benefit, share of previous income after two months

Net replacement rates in unemployment including rent assistance, 2019 or latest available data.
OECD.Stat

When the maximum rate of Coronavirus Supplement was briefly in force in 2020, Australia moved to around the OECD average.

The new rate from April 2021 will move Australia from the lowest to the second lowest, ahead of Greece only.


Unemployment benefit, share of previous income, after Australian increase

Net replacement rates in unemployment including rent assistance after two months, 2019 or latest available data.
OECD.Stat

It should be acknowledged Australia’s system is based on different principles to many other OECD countries in which workers and their employers make contributions to and withdrawals from unemployment insurance.




Read more:
$50 a fortnight rise in JobSeeker comes with tougher job search requirements


But the difference in philosophy does not change the brutal reality that when Australian workers lose their job, their incomes fall more than in almost any other high income country.

Even after what the government has trumpeted as a historic increase, there will be few developed countries where people will be as worse off after losing work. Any permanent increase is welcome, but there is a long way to go.The Conversation

Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Bruce Bradbury, Associate Professor, Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW

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

This week’s changes are a win for Facebook, Google and the government — but what was lost along the way?



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Rob Nicholls, UNSW

After almost a year of heated discussion about the News Media Bargaining Code, there will shortly be a new law of the land – one that’s unlikely to be applied to the platforms it was intended to reign in. But that’s not to say it hasn’t done its job.

With some final tweaks expected to the draft legislation, Facebook on Tuesday announced it would restore news for Australian users and strike up commercial agreements with local publishers. It signed its first deal with Seven West media yesterday.

Google has already done deals with News Corp, Nine Fairfax, Seven West Media, The Guardian and regional news company ACM, turning back on its initial threat to pull Google Search from Australia.

Meanwhile, Facebook threatened to stop providing Australians access to news — and did (while also blocking domestic violence helplines, children’s cancer charities and the Royal Australian College of Physicians).

In return, the federal government said it would stop all advertising campaigns on the platform. Interestingly, it’s this move which most likely “assisted” the recent negotiated outcome with Facebook.

The amendments

The changes made to the code — other than the opportunity to sell advertising to the Commonwealth again — were small, but important. It’s worth remembering the code’s aim was to balance out the bargaining imbalance between big tech platforms and news media businesses.

Essentially, it provides a mechanism to force a deal when a commercial outcome can’t be reached voluntarily. The code is mandatory, since the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the view the platforms would not otherwise get to a commercial offer, let alone a commercial settlement.

As set out by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, there were four changes made that have met Facebook’s needs:

  1. before a digital platform is made subject to the code by being “designated”, the minister must first take into account whether it has reached commercial agreements with news media businesses

  2. the government must give at least one month’s notice of designation to any platform it intends to make subject to the code

  3. the non-discrimination provisions (crafted as an anti-avoidance mechanism) will not be triggered in respect to remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arise in the course of usual business practice

  4. final offer arbitration will be a last resort and should be preceded by good faith mediation, provided this lasts no longer than two months.




Read more:
Feel like breaking up with Facebook? Maybe it’s time for a social media spring clean


A major change?

The above amendments made by the government are not major, in terms of changing the scope of the News Media Bargaining Code. However, they do include some important clarifications regarding how the code will operate.

Both Google and Facebook were very concerned the approach of “final offer arbitration” would adversely affect them. In this, if a deal couldn’t be struck, both the platform and media business would have to present their offers and defer to an arbitrator to choose one.

Google and Facebook initially argued for “commercial arbitration”, where the arbitrator acts with more discretion. Commercial arbitration tends to favour the party with the most information or bargaining power.

The compromise of requiring good faith mediation before any compulsory arbitration (whether commercial or final offer arbitration) is a classic dispute resolution approach.

Win some, lose some

The News Media Bargaining Code has changed in a way that is a compromise, but hasn’t lost its original intention. The process of negotiating changes to the code has revealed the private values of Facebook, Google and any similar parties that could be impacted by the code.

The exposure draft, the introduction of the Bill, the Senate committee and Facebook’s petulant actions: all have acted to identify a financial outcome for each of Google, Facebook and the Australian news publishers.

The process has been a classic, but painful, exchange of information that would otherwise have been held close to the players’ respective chests.

For Google, it has shown Google Search must remain untouched, even if this means forking out millions in a matter of days. For Facebook, it has demonstrated that rapidly changing social media offerings (such as trying to remove news in Australia) can’t be done without major complications.

It may be too soon to judge whether Facebook’s approach of taking its lobbying to the brink worked in its favour, or to its detriment. The platform’s first interactions with the new UK Digital Markets Unit (a regulatory regime targeted at big tech firms) will likely shed some light.

And finally, the ACCC can claim it was right in its initial recommendation; after a long drought, there will soon be money flowing to public interest journalism.




Read more:
Why Google is now funnelling millions into media outlets, as Facebook pulls news for Australia


Who pays?

The intention of the News Media Bargaining Code was to create an environment where commercial deals would be struck between the platforms and news media businesses in Australia.

Now, under several deals, Google and Facebook will pay Australian news media businesses tens of millions of dollars each year for locally created content.

According to an Australian Financial Review report, Facebook Australia paid a little under A$17 million in tax in 2019.
Shutterstock

There’s also a reasonable expectation regional news businesses will receive funds in exchange for regional news — although a clear standard offer is yet to be made by the platforms.

This development will not change the inevitable shift of the news business model to a largely digital environment. But it does balance the value proposition between news creation and news curation.

It has also made clear to Facebook, Google and news media businesses that they exist and operate in a symbiosis. The status of this relationship? Well, it’s complicated.




Read more:
Google’s and Facebook’s loud appeal to users over the news media bargaining code shows a lack of political power


The Conversation


Rob Nicholls, Associate professor in regulation and governance, UNSW

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

COVID’s mental health fallout will last a long time. Here’s how we’re targeting pandemic depression and anxiety



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Richard Bryant, UNSW

Although Australia is now largely COVID-free, the repercussions of the pandemic are ongoing.

As the pandemic enters its second year, many people will be continuing to suffer with poor mental health, or facing new mental health challenges.

The effects of recurrent lockdowns, fears about the effectiveness of the vaccines, restricted movement within and beyond Australia, and the bleak economic outlook are taking their toll on psychological well-being.

Now is the time to think about sustainable, evidence-based mental health programs that will serve Australians as we confront the mental fallout of the pandemic in 2021 and beyond.

The evidence is in

We now have incontrovertible evidence mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic. Large studies that assessed people’s mental health before and during COVID-19 have reported marked increases in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress since the pandemic began.

Although many experts predicted people with pre-existing mental disorders would be most vulnerable, we’ve seen even greater increases in psychological distress among those without a history of mental illness.

Unemployment and financial stress have exacerbated psychological problems during the pandemic. The major concern is that the increase in mental health problems will persist for years because of the economic downturn facing most nations.

Importantly, suicide rates increase during economic downturns. One study showed each 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a 1% increase in suicides.

The impact of unemployment and financial hardship on mental health is relevant for many Australians, as fears of reduced support from the JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes loom. Although the government this week announced the JobSeeker payment will go up, welfare groups have warned it’s still not enough.




Read more:
Greater needs, but poorer access to services: why COVID mental health measures must target disadvantaged areas


So what can we do?

The question now facing many nations is how to manage the unprecedented number of people who may need mental health assistance. There are several challenges.

First, lockdowns, social isolation, and fear of infection impede the traditional form of receiving mental health care in clinics. These obstacles might now be greater in other countries with higher infection rates, but we’ve certainly seen these challenges in Australia over the past year.

Second, many people who have developed mental health conditions during the pandemic would never have had reason to seek help before, which can impede their motivation and ability to access care.

Third, many people experiencing distress will not have a clinical mental disorder, and in this sense, don’t require therapy. Instead, they need new skills to help them cope.




Read more:
Stressed out, dropping out: COVID has taken its toll on uni students


Since the pandemic began, there’s been widespread promotion of smartphone mental health apps as a remedy for our growing mental health problems.

While these programs often work well in controlled trials, in reality most people don’t download health apps, and even fewer continue using them. Further, most people who do use health apps are richer, younger, and often in very good health.

Evidence does suggest apps can play a role in delivering mental health programs, but they don’t represent the panacea to the current mental health crisis. We need to develop more effective programs that can be scaled up and delivered in an affordable manner.

One approach

A few years ago, the World Health Organization and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) jointly developed a mental health treatment program.

The program consisted of face-to-face group sessions teaching people affected by adversity new skills to manage stress more effectively. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and mood problems in multiple trials.

A young woman is on her laptop at home.
We’ve tailored a program to address the mental health challenges of the COVID pandemic.
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

My team at UNSW has adapted this program during COVID-19 to specifically address the mental health needs of people affected by the pandemic. A clinical psychologist leads weekly sessions via video-conferencing over six weeks, with four participants in each group. The sessions cover skills to manage low mood, stress and worries resulting from the pandemic.

Typically, mental health programs have attempted to reduce negative mood and stress by using strategies that target problem areas. A newer approach, which we use in this program, focuses on boosting positive mood, and giving people strategies to optimally experience positive events and pleasure when faced with difficulties.

In controlled trials this strategy has effectively improved mental health outcomes, even more than a traditional program.

Trialling this tailored program around Australia in recent months, we’ve found it effectively improves mood and reduces stress. Although we haven’t yet published our results in a peer-reviewed journal, our preliminary data suggest the program results in a 20% greater reduction in depression than a control treatment (where we give participants resources with strategies to manage stress and mood).

This raises the possibility agencies could provide simple but effective programs like these to people anywhere in Australia. Delivering a program by video-conferencing means it can reach people in remote areas, and those not wishing to attend clinics.




Read more:
Is your mental health deteriorating during the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s what to look out for


One of the common patterns we’ve seen in previous disasters and pandemics is that once the immediate threat has passed, governments and agencies often neglect the longer-term mental health toll.

Now is the time to plan for the delivery of sustainable, evidence-based mental health programs.


Australians experiencing distress related to the pandemic can express interest in participating in the trial program here.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Richard Bryant, Professor & Director of Traumatic Stress Clinic, UNSW

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