On October 31, Queensland will become Australia’s first state to go to the polls during the pandemic.
Normally, state elections pass amiably. They matter to the MPs, ministers and senior public servants concerned. But aside from what the tea leaves might imply for national electoral politics, they cast few ripples.
This year is different. State governments matter now, in ways they have not for decades.
This does not mean the Queensland election will produce any shocks. On the contrary. The pandemic has been good for incumbents.
Leaders, Australia-wide, are enjoying high approval ratings during the pandemic. During the tumult of the first wave, a Liberal National Brisbane City Council was returned with not a single ward changing hands.
The Palaszczuk government will, I bet, be similarly returned. Whether it deserves to, after five quiet years and given a challenging economic climate, is another matter. But it has one trump card: north of the Tweed, barely one person in a million has died of COVID-19.
This puts Queensland in a select group of democratic jurisdictions of any significant size. Only Taiwan and East Timor have done better on that metric, and they are more communal and less individualistic than Queenslanders.
Why then is 2020 different? In all the focus on statistics — health, economic and electoral — we’ve paid little attention to a fundamental shift. State governments, long relegated to second or third order by our escalating focus on international and national politics, have soared back to prominence.
This reminds us that we live within a federal system of government, and this affects our daily lives. Not just in the lofty and indirect sense — how the Commonwealth carves up GST amongst the states, for example — but in an everyday sense.
The cause of all this should be obvious. States have what constitutional lawyers call the “policing power”. Not only can they police individuals under criminal law, they can also make movement and gathering orders.
States also have the power to license (or limit) businesses and other organised activities. In the pandemic, those powers have been front and centre of the public health response.
Previously, we had come to see state borders as fusty lines from colonial times. Yet right now, the sorest issue in Australian politics involves those lines being taken seriously.
The High Court, at the behest of Clive Palmer, may yet unwind such controls. But it will be years before we return to conceiving of state borders as merely lines on a map.
Pre-COVID, states had come to be seen as mere service providers, akin to local government in the UK with their local health boards and educational authorities.
Constitutional lawyers have a term for this — “vertical fiscal imbalance”. The federal government collects about 80% of tax revenue, so it can play puppeteer, in everything from education to roads.
It is not that money is unimportant in the pandemic. Indeed, money has reinforced the Commonwealth government’s focus on macroeconomics and social security during COVID-19. Meanwhile, its other great leitmotif is national security.
So, we came to see the states as service deliverers and the federal government as holding the purse strings and looking after defence. This is even reflected in a more “blokey” politics at national level and a more nurturing one at state level, where female leaders are much more common.
Since a post-industrial Labor Party emerged 40 years ago, Labor has held office almost 60% of the time at state and territory level. Whereas the conservative Coalition has held office 56% of the time at national level.
However, the “social-democratic states”/“conservative nation” contrast can be taken too far. Palaszczuk has positioned herself as a resolute Border Queen. This invokes the ghosts of parochial predecessors, like Peter Beattie and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as much as it appeals to the trope of the mother figure, worrying about her constituents’ health.
In short, the states are back at the forefront. While this may wane as we transcend the pandemic, it will also recur as other natural disasters become more common, thanks to global warming.
Alongside the rebound in the role of the states, national attention has also fallen on the style of leadership that is more common at state level.
Palaszczuk, like her NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian, is ideologically centrist but presents a velvet glove over an iron fist.
That style may yet infuse national politics. That will depend on whether a communal spirit, of pulling together, survives from the pandemic to counterbalance interest group warfare.
Meanwhile, Queensland is about to decide whether to endorse Palaszczuk’s leadership, or embrace a different one.
Polls highly favour Joe Biden to win the US presidential election.
These polls are not just abstract information. By telling prospective voters who is the most likely to win, can they influence the result of the election by playing a role in the voters’ decision? The evidence says yes, and it most likely favours Biden.
In theory, you could imagine two possible effects of polls. First, a momentum effect. Second, an underdog effect.
A momentum effect could benefit the candidate either leading or gaining in the polls. It can motivate their supporters to vote (the bandwagon effect) and demotivate the supporters of the other candidate (the discouragement effect).
An underdog effect, on the other hand, could penalise the leading candidate. This is because supporters think it’s a done deal and don’t mobilise to vote (resting on their laurels) or because the supporters of the trailing candidate are motivated by the idea of losing (a back-to-the-wall effect).
These different effects tap into some of our intuitive psychology. It is therefore hard to know the net effect of polls.
Some evidence points to the possibility of an underdog effect when a party is just behind. This was the case in 2016, when Trump edged out Hillary Clinton in key states despite her lead in national polls. But the overwhelming message from the relevant research is that positive polls increase a candidate’s chance of winning.
In laboratory experiments recreating elections in controlled settings, California Institute of Technology economist Marina Agranov and colleagues found polls “lead to more participation by the expected majority and generate more landslide elections”.
A similar effect has been observed in real elections.
Using polling and voting data from French elections, my colleagues and I have looked at how those yet to vote were influenced by early exit polls giving a fairly precise prediction of the result.
France has the longest election day in the world, due to its overseas territories in the Pacific. When the first exit poll is released at 8pm in Paris, for example, it is just 9am in Tahiti, where people are still to decide if they will vote and for whom.
We found that knowledge of polls pointing to a certain outcome meant voters in such territories were less likely to vote. In particular, they were less likely to vote for the losing candidate. It led to a momentum effect for the leading candidate in mainland France, tending to increase their share of the vote in territories voting later.
A similar momentum effect has been discerned in Britain. Before 1918, general elections were held over a two-week period. The side ahead in the first days of the election tended to benefit from an increasing advantage, which peaked on about the eighth day of voting.
In the United States the possibility of such an effect of early information has been discussed as the “West Coast effect”, whereby voters in California and other western US states can be influenced by early results from the east coast, three hours ahead.
This issue became very salient in 1980 when NBC released an early prediction at 8pm New York time that Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would beat Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.
The polls were still open in many western states at the time. Research found this early call had a discouraging effect on prospective Democrat voters, making them less likely to vote.
Given this converging evidence, it is no surprise partisan organisations tend to use favourable polls to push a winning narrative to their support base.
As a consequence of polls’ possible strategic effect, polling companies are tightly regulated in modern democracies. Polling companies do not tend to produce polls that skew results for partisan reasons. Whatever errors occur tend to be due to flaws in polling methodology, rather than being deliberate.
However, people who want to influence the public narrative about who is winning can influence something: betting markets.
These are used to estimate the candidates’ winning chances. On these markets, people can put their money where their mouth is, and bet on the candidate they think will win.
But what if someone is willing to put a lot of money on a candidate they want to win, in a bid to skew the market predictions?
There is an incentive to manipulate betting markets’ prices, to influence voters by suggesting a candidate’s prospects are better than they actually are.
To do so in the real world would likely require spending many millions of dollars, But given the huge amounts spent in US campaigns, such expenditure is feasible.
In 2020, Trump’s chances have been surprisingly high in betting markets given the polls. What does research say about this fact?
In past research, I have found political betting markets tend to be biased toward 50%. That is, they tend to say the race is closer to 50/50 than it is. This bias is larger than on other types of betting markets (such as sports) – and would be expected if manipulators try to influence the prices.
I estimate the 35% chance these betting markets are giving to a Trump win may be skewing the results by 15 percentage points – meaning Trump more accurately has a 20% chance of victory.
For more accurate predictions, therefore, you are better looking at those from professional forecasters, such as Five Thirty Eight and The Economist. In these forecasts Trump has only 5-12% chance of winning. Importantly, Biden’s advantage appears much firmer than what Clinton had in 2016.
But even these predictions may be overestimated. As pointed out by one of the best forecasters in the US, Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman, professional forecasters have an interest in hedging their bets to preserve their reputation.
These low forecasts have a striking implication. Putting money on Biden now is a relatively safe bet. It may also help move the betting market predictions in Biden’s favour.
The joy Melburnians feel about coming out of lockdown is palpable, but another thread is also emerging: if you don’t live in Melbourne and haven’t experienced what we’ve experienced, you can’t actually understand what we’ve been through.
COVID has affected all Australians, but these last few months have been different for us.
Research on collective trauma and community recovery after disaster and upheaval tells us this is common in groups that have faced terrible or challenging experiences together.
If you’re in Melbourne, there are many ways to help yourself and those near you as we emerge from this gruelling period. If you’re outside Melbourne, you can and should support your Melbourne mates — but there are a few things to avoid.
Collective trauma events are not just disasters; they also have community-wide effects, and challenge people’s understanding of the way the world works.
Collective trauma events are typically thought of as tragedies such as the Lindt Cafe siege in 2014, the Christchurch Mosque shootings in 2019 or the events at Dream World in 2016. But I’d argue the strain of the last months in Melbourne has been experienced as a type of collective trauma event.
This view is informed by my research into disaster recovery, my work as a senior practitioner at Australian Red Cross, workplace seminars I have conducted during the pandemic, and my own experience living in Melbourne through this.
Collective trauma can have direct and indirect impacts. In the pandemic, direct impacts might be bereavement, the effect on your health, employment, education and access to services. Indirect impacts can be much harder to get your head around. They include changes to your worldview, your relationships, and how you see yourself.
For example in pre-pandemic times you may have been in a very equal relationship where domestic duties were evenly shared — but in lockdown, maybe one partner shouldered a bigger burden of childcare and housework, or was under more pressure at work. These stressors can throw the relationship out of whack and have a long term impact.
In the first wave, there was a sense of “if we just batten down the hatches and get on with it, we will get through this.”
In the second wave, people in Victoria were confronted with a realisation that much in life is outside our control and recovery may not be linear. Instead of thinking “we just need to get through this part and then we’ll get back to how things were”, there was an unsettling day-to-day challenge of thinking, “What if this keeps happening? What if we can’t stop it? What if this changes the way I thought the world worked?”
So you had this disconnect where people outside Victoria kept saying “You’ll get through this! Once you’re on the other side things will be normal!” but, for many of us, those well-meaning cheers of encouragement didn’t line up with our actual experience.
Of course, people in other parts of the country who have been shaken in similar ways, and the restrictions Melburnians have experienced recently are faced by some people all the time. But in Melbourne, the relentlessness has been difficult to escape.
We know from research that if a community has been through a challenging experience together — whether that’s bushfire, flood or some local horrific event — getting support from others who experienced it is crucial.
In my work with the Red Cross, we try to encourage people to connect with others after disasters. Just coming together to talk about what happened gives people the opportunity to feel a sense of hope, to normalise their experience and to be able to talk in a “shorthand” with others who will understand, because they went through it too. It’s a relief.
But all the things we’d normally suggest in the early stages of disaster are systemically dismantled by COVID. People have tried to stay connected online but it’s not the same. It’s tiring. It’s been harder to draw on normal points of support, which is crucial to recovery.
If you’re in Melbourne, recognise that we’ve all been through something huge and exhausting. Everyone is going to be in a different place. Try and be as patient and kind as you can with yourself and the people around you.
The research on collective trauma tells us if you haven’t been through the event, you’ll never quite understand. That doesn’t mean people outside Melbourne haven’t had their own experience, or can’t help.
Think about any upsetting personal experience you’ve had, such as miscarriage, divorce or the death of a parent. When someone who hasn’t experienced that specific trauma says “I know how you feel”, you might have felt misunderstood and even resentful or rageful.
You might think, “Not only do I need to explain myself and my feelings to this person — which in itself is exhausting and upsetting — I also have to find the energy to explain why what they said was wrong, even though I know they meant well”.
So over the next few weeks and months, don’t say “I know exactly how you feel” to your Melbourne friends and family. Unless you actually have been through the same thing in another setting, you don’t know how they feel. This experience was very specific.
Instead, ask “What has this been like for you?” and listen to what the person is saying. Say, “That sounds difficult. Tell me why, because I haven’t been in that situation”.
Research in this field talks a lot about the five mass trauma intervention principles, which are about promoting:
1) a sense of safety
2) a sense of calm
3) a sense of self-efficacy and community efficacy (belief in one’s community or one’s own ability to do something well)
The lovely thing about these principles is they can be applied in many situations, whether that’s holding a press conference, consoling a friend or socialising with colleagues.
Good leaders promote these five things in times of crisis.
When we talk to each other as friends, try to keep those five principles in mind. Be open and empathetic in your listening.
Don’t be scared to talk to each other about how you’re feeling, and don’t be scared to ask your Melbourne friends about what happened.
But recognise that if you haven’t been through it, a good place to start could be “I can’t imagine what that was like. How can I help?”
American presidential elections do not, as a rule, change the calculus much for Australian foreign policy. Elections come and go, American presidents complete their terms and business continues more or less as normal.
Even Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 due to Watergate caused not much more than a ripple in what had been a difficult relationship between Washington and Canberra during the Whitlam era.
Gough Whitlam and his ministers had criticised US bombing campaigns in Hanoi and the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong.
Importantly from Australia’s perspective, Gerald Ford continued Nixon’s engagement with China. This led to the normalisation of relations under Jimmy Carter in 1978.
While it would be foolish to predict the outcome of presidential elections whose results have confounded pollsters in the recent past, odds favour a change of an administration.
President Donald Trump’s blunders in the management of a pandemic are weighing heavily on both his electoral prospects and those of the Republican Party.
So, with all the caveats attached, it is reasonable to speculate about implications for Australia of a change of administration.
An end to Trump’s “America First” era and its replacement by a traditionalist American foreign policy under Joe Biden, which emphasises friendships and alliances, will create new opportunities.
Importantly, a less abrasive international environment, in which America seeks to rebuild confidence in its global leadership, should be to Australia’s advantage.
Not least of the benefits would be an opportunity for Canberra to reset its relations with Beijing. This is a long-overdue project whose fulfilment has been complicated by Australia’s identification with Washington’s erratic policies coupled with Sinophobic attitudes in Canberra.
None of this is to suggest Australia should drop its legitimate criticisms of China: its human rights abuses; its cyber intrusions; its intellectual property theft; its attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics; its flagrant disregard for criticisms of its activities in the South China Sea; its unprincipled reneging on its “one country two systems” agreements on Hong Kong, and a host of other issues.
Indeed, you could argue Canberra needs to be more forthright in its dealings with China in pursuit of a more distinctive foreign policy.
Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed glimmers of promise in this regard. But this proved short-lived.
In an Asialink speech in the lead-up to the 2019 Osaka G20 summit, Morrison sketched out a role for Australia in seeking to defuse tensions in the region and provide some space for itself in its foreign policy. He said:
We should not just sit back and passively await our fate in the wake of a major power contest.
The speech was regarded at the time as promising a nuanced Morrison foreign policy. But since then the Australia has not ventured far from America’s coattails.
Indeed, it might be said to have cleaved even more closely to the US alliance as China’s rise has unsettled the region.
This returns us to implications of a potential Biden administration for Australia.
It would be naive to assume tensions between Washington and Beijing will dissipate under a Biden presidency. Such is the range of issues bedevilling Sino-US relations that some rancour will persist.
Much has changed in the four years since Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama. China is richer, bigger, stronger, more assertive and seemingly more ideological. It is certainly more nationalistic.
In Xi Jinping, it has a leader who is more conspicuously and ruthlessly committed to restoring China’s greatness than his predecessors.
Gone are the days when discussion about China revolved around hopes it would become a responsible international stakeholder willing to accommodate itself to an America-dominated global order. Now the issue is whether China’s assertiveness can be hedged to avoid open conflict.
If elected, Biden will need to settle on a new formula for dealing with China that provides certainty for an anxious global community. Whether this proves possible remains to be seen.
It should also be noted that Biden’s foreign policy advisory team includes hawkish elements that will resist yielding ground to China. Biden himself has referred to China’s leader Xi as a “thug”, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy realists are not burdened by an “America First” mindset. His team can be expected to take an expansive view of American foreign policy on issues like climate change, arms control and rebuilding a global trading system battered by years of neglect.
A Democrat administration would re-enter the Paris Agreement on climate change. It could also be expected to review Trump’s decision to disengage from the Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc and it might seek to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
These would be positive developments from an Australian standpoint.
Unquestionably, re-ordering China policy will be at the top of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, and separate from the absolute domestic imperative of bringing a COVID-19 pandemic under control.
Australia should take advantage of the opportunity to explore possibilities of a less counterproductive relationship with its principal trading partner.
Many feel the coronavirus pandemic has changed not just our everyday lives, but also our inner mental lives. There has been talk of a mental health pandemic, but also of lockdown brain fog when we are awake, as well as reports of more frequent, vivid, and bizarre dreams when we are asleep.
We tend to think of our waking and dream lives as separate. But it is striking how deeply they are linked.
Spontaneous thought, or mind wandering, occupies up to 50% of wakefulness. Our thoughts and attention frequently drift away from what we are doing and what is happening in our immediate surroundings, with one thought following another along an associative trajectory.
Spontaneous thoughts and experiences are also pervasive in sleep. The clearest example is dreaming, which has been described as an intensified form of the mind wandering that happens when we are awake.
Considering dreaming and mind wandering together suggests the fluctuations in spontaneous experience, the natural ebb and flow of attention and somewhat erratic trajectory of thoughts continue throughout waking and sleep.
In normal circumstances, we mostly remain oblivious to the fact our minds have wandered. Most people also only rarely remember their dreams, but when awakened in the sleep laboratory can report multiple dreams per night. Like mind wandering, dreaming is also largely (with the exception of certain lucid dreams) beyond our control.
However, attention to our inner lives may be amplified at a time when control over our everyday lives is elusive.
Paying attention to your dreams when you first wake up in the morning drastically increases dream recall. And attempting to harness our thoughts and attention throughout the day can actually make us more aware of our failures, including lapses in attention. If you have been paying more attention to your spontaneous thoughts during the pandemic, you might have become more aware of what was were there all along.
If you have been sleeping more during lockdown, you are probably experiencing more early morning REM sleep. Because REM sleep is typically associated with the most vivid and complex dreams, this might lead to an increase in actual dreaming.
If you have also ditched your alarm clock, you are probably awakening directly from REM sleep, which further increases dream recall.
The pandemic has also changed what we daydream and dream about. Waking concerns about the pandemic seem paralleled by more frequent nightmares and dreams about topics such as social distancing, contagion, or personal protective equipment.
Some changes to our spontaneous mental lives can indicate something is amiss. Anxiety and stress are linked to increased repetitive thoughts and rumination; trouble focusing, disturbed sleep, nightmares, and unpleasant dreams, all of which seem to have increased during the pandemic.
These repetitive, sticky and non-progressive thoughts contrast with the free, meandering movement that characterises most dreams and mind wandering.
The restlessness of our minds might also have a silver lining. Mind wandering certainly does compromise how well we perform tasks demanding attention. But because of their associative nature, dreams and mind wandering can also help make new connections and see familiar topics in a new light. When our minds wander, our thoughts are often drawn to the future and personal concerns.
Similarly, dreams have the tendency to weave disparate waking experiences and concerns into new and sometimes bizarre narratives. You might encounter a dream character who is a mixture of different people you have been close to at different times in your life.
Or your initially pleasant dream of visiting friends in a faraway city might morph into a nightmare about getting infected, putting your family at risk, and being pursued by the police because you are breaching lockdown.
Spontaneous thoughts in waking and sleep might help process memories and guide future planning and decision making, for example by enabling us to imagine alternative courses of action; they can also be a source of insight and creativity.
Such thoughts may also contribute to coping and emotional processing. Future-oriented mind wandering is often positive, whereas past-oriented mind wandering tends to be associated with negative moods and emotions.
Being in the here and now is often lauded as a virtue we should aim to cultivate through mindfulness. But sometimes, distraction can be useful: Mind wandering can provide a welcome break from boring tasks, allowing us to return with refreshed attention.
Other times, distraction might just be pleasant. In our dreams, we experience alternative realities; we can travel freely and, because dreams are rich in social interactions, we can interact with people we are separated from in waking life.
Given the monotony, restrictions, and social isolation many of us are experiencing, the unruliness and unboundedness of our minds might sometimes be a great escape.
If you are interested in joining a study on mind wandering and dreaming, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
While this may sound like an exciting prospect, there are a few questions to answer before we know what role this test might have in managing the spread of COVID-19.
It’s important to understand there’s no scientific definition of a “superspreader”.
In the context of COVID-19, the term “superspreader” has been used to describe someone who can spread the virus and cause infection in many people with minimal contact.
There are many factors thought to contribute to what makes someone a superspreader. The most talked about is infectious viral load. Put simply, this is the amount of live infectious virus a person carries.
Current thinking is that people with a higher infectious viral load are more likely to infect others, but it may not be that simple.
When a person has a COVID-19 test, the health-care worker uses a swab to collect samples from the back of the person’s nose and throat. These are the areas where the virus likes to live. The swab is then sent to a pathology lab which tests for the presence of viral genomic material.
The test returns as a positive (that is, the virus has been detected) or negative (virus not detected). There’s no indication of how much virus is present, or whether it’s replicating.
Microbio says the newly developed InfectID-COVID-19-R test can detect “replication-competent virus”. This essentially means the test would detect the amount of active live virus a person is carrying. Researchers believe the patient is most likely to be infectious when the virus is replicating.
Like current COVID-19 tests, the test requires a sample of viral genetic material from a patient swab. The genetic material is “extracted” from the swab (termed RNA extraction). The resulting sample is put through a machine to detect an important part of the virus genome which indicates whether the virus is alive and replicating.
InfectID-COVID-19-R claims to accurately detect a virus concentration as low as 1,500 TCID50 per millilitre with 99% specificity. (TCID50 stands for tissue culture infectious dose 50% — it’s currently the accepted standard to quantify the amount of infectious SARS-CoV-2.)
This equation may be tricky to grasp, but the important part to understand is that below this threshold, the person has a lower amount of replicating virus than the test can guarantee to detect. They can’t say for certain the person has no replicating virus.
If a person records a result above the threshold, that tells scientists the virus is alive and replicating.
The suggestion is the test will be able to quantify the amount of replicating virus present in the swab. But exactly what that means — and how the test will achieve this — is uncertain.
Microbio’s media release is tight-lipped on a few key aspects of this test. We still don’t have answers to some questions, including:
what part of the virus genome it is detecting, and how is this different to our current diagnostic tests?
how does detecting this part of the virus ensure detection of replicating or “live” virus?
how will the test results be presented? For example, will the test provide a reference range and guide on how to interpret the result?
how can they prove that if a test comes back below the limit of detection for replicating virus that the person is not infectious?
In response to queries from The Conversation, Microbio’s chief scientific officer Flavia Huygens said the new test “targets the part of the virus’ genome that is present while it is replicating inside the human cell”, and that this target is different to existing COVID-19 tests. She added: “Our test detects the portion of the virus genome that is only present whilst the virus is replicating and hence is indicative that the virus is “live.”
Huygens also said the test has built-in references and guides for clinical laboratories to interpret the results.
Without more detail, it’s too early to tell just how useful this test will be.
Certainly, we need to know whether a low replicating viral load means a person is not infectious before using this test to make any decisions around quarantine. Research is still ongoing in this area.
The test hasn’t yet been approved for use. It has been independently validated by 360 biolabs, a clinical trial laboratory accredited by the Australian National Association of Testing Authorities. Huygens told The Conversation that Microbio is planning further validation of its test using patient samples.
Currently we have no way to know who may be a superspreader. While this test might give us a measure of a person’s replicating viral load, this is only one piece of the puzzle.
As is the case for any virus, spreading SARS-CoV-2 requires more than just high viral load. It requires the right environmental conditions (for example, indoors and lower humidity), proximity to an infected person, and time (more time exposed means more chance of infection).
Therefore it’s more accurate to refer to “superspreading events” rather than to particular people as “superspreaders” more generally. Superspreading events are situations in which one person, aided by the ideal conditions, infects a large number of others.
With this in mind, limiting the time you spend in confined spaces (and wearing a mask if you can’t avoid a closed space), washing your hands and keeping your distance will be your best protection against COVID-19.
This week, the bushfire royal commission is due to hand down its findings. Already, the commission’s officials have warned the status quo is “no longer enough to defend us from the impact of global warming”.
Australia’s young people appear to know this all too well. Preliminary findings from our recent research show many young people are worried about the future. And those directly exposed to the Black Summer bushfires suffered mental health problems long after the flames went out.
Young people with direct exposure to the bushfires reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, and more drug and alcohol use, than those not directly exposed.
It’s clear that along with the other catastrophic potential harm caused by climate change, the mental health of young people is at risk. We must find effective ways to help young people cope with climate change anxiety.
Our yet-to-be published study was conducted between early March and early June this year. It involved 740 young people in New South Wales between the ages of 16 and 25 completing a series of standardised questionnaires about their current emotional state, and their concerns about climate change.
Our early findings were presented at the International Association of People-Environment Studies (IAPS) conference online earlier this year.
Some 57% of respondents lived in metropolitan areas and 43% in rural or regional areas. About 78.3% were female, about 20.4% male and around 1% preferred not to say.
Overall, just over 18% of the respondents had been directly exposed to the bushfires over the past year. About the same percentage had been directly exposed to drought in that period, and more than 83% were directly exposed to bushfire smoke.
Our preliminary results showed respondents with direct exposure to the Black Summer bushfires reported significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, adjustment disorder symptoms, and drug and alcohol use than those not directly exposed to these bushfires.
Many young people were clearly concerned about the future. One 16 year old female respondent from a rural/regional area told us:
From day to day, if it crosses my mind I do get a bit distressed […] knowing that not enough is being done to stop or slow down the effects of climate change is what makes me very distressed as our future and future generations are going to have to deal with this problem.
Another 24 year old female respondent from a rural/regional area said:
It makes me feel incredibly sad. Sad when I think about the animals it will effect [sic]. Sad when I think about the world my son is growing up in. Sad to think that so many people out there do not believe it is real and don’t care how their actions effect [sic] the planet, and all of us. Sad that the people in the position to do something about it, won’t.
Young people directly exposed to drought also showed higher levels of anxiety and stress than non-exposed youth.
Those with direct exposure to bushfires were more likely than non-exposed young people to believe climate change was:
Both groups were equally likely — and highly likely — to believe that the environment is fragile and easily damaged by human activity, and that serious damage from human activity is already occurring and could soon have catastrophic consequences for both nature and humans.
One 23 year old female respondent from a metropolitan area told us:
I feel like climate change is here now and is just getting worse and worse as time goes on.
One 19 year old male respondent from a metropolitan area said:
I feel scared because of what will happen to my future kids, that they may not have a good future because I feel that this planet won’t last any longer because of our wasteful activities.
When asked how climate change makes them feel, answers varied. Some were not at all concerned (with a minority questioning whether it was even happening). Others reported feeling scared, worried, anxious, sad, angry, nervous, concerned for themselves and/or future generations, depressed, terrified, confused, and helpless.
One 16 year old female respondent in a metropolitan area told us:
I feel quite angry because the people who should be doing something about it aren’t because it won’t affect them in the future but it will affect me.
Though they were slightly more upbeat about their own futures and the future of humanity, a significant proportion expressed qualified or no hope, with consistent criticisms about humanity’s selfishness and lack of willpower to make needed behavioural changes.
One 21 year old female respondent from a metropolitan area said she felt:
a bit dissappointed [sic], people have the chance to help and take action, but they just don’t care. I feel sad as the planet will eventually react to the damage we have done, and by then, it will be too late.
Many participants listed COVID-19 as an extra stressor in their life. One 18 year old female said:
Slightly unrelated but after seeing all of the impacts on a lot of people during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of my hope for humanity is gone.
A 25 year old woman told us:
Due to the fact of this COVID stuff, we are not going to be able to do a lot of activitys (sic) that we did before this virus shit happen (sic).
A 16 year old male said:
At present with how people have reacted over the COVID-19 virus there is no hope for humanity. Everyone has become selfish and entitled.
Irrespective of bushfire exposure, respondents reported experiencing moderate levels of depression, moderate to severe anxiety and mild stress. They also reported drug and alcohol use at levels that, according to the UNCOPE substance use screening tool, suggested cause for concern.
We are still analysing the data we collected, but our preliminary results strongly suggest climate change is linked to how hopeful young people feel about the future.
We are already locked into a significant degree of warming — the only questions are just how bad will it get and how quickly.
Young people need better access to mental health services and support. It’s clear we must find effective ways to help young people build psychological resilience to bushfires, and other challenges climate change will bring.
University of New England researchers Suzanne Cosh, Melissa Parsons, Belinda Craig
and Clara Murray contributed to this research. Don Hine from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand was also a contributor.
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The World Health Organisation has always been interested in housing as one of the big “causes of the causes”, of the social determinants, of health. The WHO launched evidence-based guidelines for healthy housing policies in 2019.
Australia is behind the eight ball on healthy housing. Other governments, including in the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand, acknowledge housing as an important contributor to the burden of disease. These countries have major policy initiatives focused on this agenda.
In Australia, however, we do housing and we do health, but they sit in different portfolios of government and aren’t together in the (policy) room often enough. Housing should be embedded in our National Preventive Health Strategy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink how we approach health and protect our populations. It has amplified social and economic vulnerability. The pandemic has almost certainly brought housing and health together in our minds.
Housing – its ability to provide shelter, its quality, location, warmth – has proven to be a key factor in the pandemic’s “syndemic” nature. That is, as well as shaping exposure to the virus itself, housing contributes to the social patterning of chronic diseases that increase COVID-19 risks.
Housing affects health in many ways. At the broad scale, housing disadvantage, unaffordable housing and housing of poor quality have been the focus of much recent Australian research. More specific housing drivers of health, such as household mould, injury, overcrowding, noise, cold and damp, have received renewed global attention.
However, capturing the combined health effect of housing is difficult. It’s hard to measure and has many components, and everyone has slightly different housing (and health).
But epidemiologists can provide us with a useful way of estimating the “burden” of various risk factors for population health. Housing risk factors have rarely been examined in Australia, but our estimates flag that the increasing health burden of housing demands attention.
For example, we estimate the health cost (measured in disability-adjusted life years) due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to mouldy or damp housing is about three times the cost attributable to sugary drinks in Australia. Damp, cold and mouldy housing generates a substantial health burden and could be an easy target for public health prevention strategies. These housing conditions stand alongside many of the classic risk factors such as diet, smoking and obesity.
This estimate of health burden does not even factor in the important role housing plays in mental health. Housing affordability, security, suitability, location and condition are all associated with good mental health.
With rates of eviction likely to increase once moratoriums are lifted across the country, the housing-related mental health burden will almost certainly increase too.
We have previously estimated more than 2.5 million Australians are living in unhealthy housing — and that this number is rising.
Simple housing-focused interventions could reduce the sizeable health burden from housing-related problems. As the WHO advocates, this requires policy and research that have an eye on both health and housing.
In practical terms, a preventive health strategy would include:
minimum rental housing standards to protect occupants’ health, which would target structural factors related to damp and mould, ventilation, heating and cooling, injury hazards, maintenance and repair
good-quality public housing that is easy to access as a foundation for healthy lives
help with fixing problems, such as mould removal and servicing of heaters, for people in poor-quality housing
insulation to maintain indoor temperature and increase energy efficiency.
COVID has caused us to rapidly rethink public housing, nursing homes, share houses and small inner-city apartments. When choosing our current housing, few of us would have factored in the potential for isolation and loneliness, the need for separate working and study spaces, access to private green space, or the infection risk of shared lifts.
The experience of many Australians during the pandemic has almost certainly changed our view of the housing that we need, and what we consider to be healthy. It is time to harness this knowledge and learn from our COVID-19 experience.
Many have lamented the missed opportunity to create economic stimulus in our nation’s COVID recovery plan by building more social housing. But social housing is only a small part of the story. Australia needs to embrace a future where good population health goes hand in hand with good-quality, affordable and secure housing – where health is at the forefront of housing policy and public preventive health strategies harness housing.
The time is right for Australia to put housing and health in the same room and develop a national healthy housing agenda. Our National Health and Medical Research Council-funded Centre for Research Excellence in Healthy Housing aims to lead and shape this agenda. In doing so, we pose the following questions to our governments, research community and stakeholders:
How can we respond in a nationally co-ordinated way to the emerging challenges that COVID-19 presents to healthy housing?
Who should be included in the conversation and in developing the agenda – and what is the role of the Commonwealth Department of Health?
Where does responsibility for providing healthy housing lie?
What is the “minimum standard” of housing that we want to provide to all Australians?
What are the healthy housing priorities? Warmth? Mould? Tenure security? Affordability?
What groups in our society demand immediate attention? Children? Renters? People with disabilities?
How will an Australian healthy housing agenda fit within a national housing agenda (when one exists)?
Rebecca Bentley, Professor of Social Epidemiology, Principal Research Fellow in Social Epidemiology and Director of the Centre for Research Excellence in Healthy Housing in Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Emma Baker, Professor of Housing Research and Deputy Director of the NHMRC Centre of Excellence for Healthy Housing