Stimulus that retrofits housing can reduce energy bills and inequity too



Nicola Willand, Author provided

Nicola Willand, RMIT University; Bhavna Middha, RMIT University; Emma Baker, University of Adelaide; Ralph Horne, RMIT University, and Trivess Moore, RMIT University

Stay-at-home orders and the economic crisis have increased the burden of energy costs on lower-income Australians. Poor housing quality and unequal access to home energy efficiency are hurting our most vulnerable households. With the next stage of the national recovery program expected to include cash grants for home renovation, now is the time to turn to housing retrofits that support health and well-being as well as boost jobs.

Staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic increases households’ energy consumption and costs. As one in ten Australians might lose their jobs, the pandemic is adding to the energy hardship of people who were already struggling to pay their bills.




Read more:
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Access to energy is essential

Cold housing is a known health risk. Lancet research attributes about 7% of Australian deaths to cold weather. Warm housing reduces the risk of airborne infections, as well as providing comfort for working and studying.

Laundry temperatures of 60-90°C are needed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But this conflicts with common energy-saving advice of washing clothes in cold water. Self-isolation also means heating more and not being able to close off unused rooms.

Low-income households, renters and older people are more likely to live in energy-inefficient dwellings. In fact, most Australian housing has poor energy efficiency.

When people on low incomes live in such housing, they are doubly disadvantaged by the challenges of needing more energy and not being able to afford it. Households with older people, people with chronic illness and children are particularly susceptible to energy stress and poor health outcomes.




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Stop-gap measures

The temporary stop to disconnections in some states recognises that access to electricity and gas is a basic need and essential for health and well-being. This guaranteed energy, and a commitment by Australian Energy Council retailers not to charge penalty fees for late payment, will give affected households some relief.

Even if power bill payments are deferred, households must still eventually repay their mounting debts.
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However, bill payment will only be postponed until the end of July. Much of the expensive heating period will still be ahead of us. And after that households will face the costs of cooling homes in summer.

Energy debts are going to accumulate as a burden to low-income households into the future. Energy retailers might find it ethically difficult to resume disconnections, but customers will have to repay their debts. This will only be possible if their overall financial position improves and/or the cost of their energy decreases.

Income support via energy concessions can ease bill stress. However, taxpayer money may be better spent on providing sustained relief by improving the energy performance of homes. Acknowledging housing as essential infrastructure would enable economic and social progress.




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A lasting solution to energy poverty

A long-term stimulus package for retrofits would be welcome. The focus should be on comprehensive retrofitting to reduce energy demand, thus helping households to repay debt. Comprehensive or “deep retrofits” combine simple activities such as draught proofing with insulating ceilings, floors and walls, upgrading heating and cooling appliances, and installing solar PV systems.

Many retrofits overlook the opportunity to install underfloor insulation when restumping a house.
CSR Bradford/YouTube screenshot

Initial findings of our HEET (Housing Energy Efficiency Transitions) research show simple retrofit measures are cheap and easy to do, and DIYing is popular. However, some opportunities are missed because householders are not aware of what can and should be done. A common example is failing to install underfloor insulation when restumping the house.




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Riding the current wave of home improvements, innovative retrofit initiatives may guide people in their DIY efforts. However, some training for proper DIY installation and the use of skilled tradespeople for technical installations is needed for safety and quality.

Spread retrofitting benefits more widely

Federal and state subsidy schemes already promote retrofitting. But recent research suggests low-income households and renters have benefited less. The one-in-three households that rent their homes should not be missing out.




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Putting people at the centre of retrofitting programs will provide healthier homes and help tackle unemployment. This means providing retrofit assistance to those who need it most and training people in retrofit skills.

Previously, the boom in new housing construction inhibited retrofitting. This might change following the COVID-19 crisis. A long-term retrofit program would be an opportunity to upskill builders and to retrain newly unemployed Australians, particularly the young people who have been most affected by job losses. An expanded retrofit workforce is needed to reach the large number of inefficient homes.

So-called “Green Deals” have already been proposed in Europe, the US and the UK. Green construction stimulus packages in Australia have successfully supported economic recovery before.
The aim should be to spawn a new industry of energy-efficient builders who will continue to contribute to the upgrade and upkeep of Australian housing. This could help cut greenhouse gas emissions, promote public health and improve our resilience to crises.

A nationwide stimulus package to provide healthier and more energy-efficient homes would help the most vulnerable and boost the economy.The Conversation

Nicola Willand, Lecturer, School of Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University; Bhavna Middha, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Emma Baker, Professor of Housing Research, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Adelaide; Ralph Horne, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation; Director of UNGC Cities Programme; Professor, RMIT University, and Trivess Moore, Senior Lecturer, School of Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University

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

Beyond travel, a trans-Tasman bubble is an opportunity for Australia and NZ to reduce dependence on China



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Hongzhi Gao, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Monica Ren, Macquarie University

When it comes to our economic over-reliance on China, New Zealand consumers need look no further than their most popular big box chain, The Warehouse. The familiar “big red shed” sourced about 60% of its home brand stock from China in 2017 – and a further NZ$62 million in products directly through offices in China, India and Bangladesh in 2019.

In Australia, many major chain stores as well as online retail giant kogan.com are in a similar position. Reliant on China for much of what they sell, including exclusive home-brand items, they are part of what has been described as the world’s most China-reliant economy.

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown Australian and New Zealand businesses’ dependence on China into stark relief. With countries reportedly competing with and undercutting each other to secure desperately needed medical supplies from China, many are now waking up to their economic exposure to a single manufacturing giant.

Understandably, discussions about creating a “trans-Tasman bubble” between Australia and New Zealand have focused on kick-starting economic activity in the short term, particularly through tourism. But both countries also need to take a longer-term view of boosting economic activity – including through increased manufacturing and trade integration.




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The statistics support this. In 2018, 20% of global trade in the manufacturing of “intermediate” products (which need further processing before sale) came from China. Chinese manufacturing (including goods made from components made in China) also accounted for:

  • 35% of household goods
  • 46% of hi-tech goods
  • 54% of textiles and apparel
  • 38% of machinery, rubber and plastic
  • 20% of pharmaceuticals and medical goods
  • 42% of chemical products.

Australia and New Zealand are no exception, with China the number one trading partner of both. Australia earned 32.6% of its export income from China in 2019, mostly from natural resource products such as iron ores, coal and natural gas, as well as education and tourism.

Inside a Bunnings store in Australia: many of the shelves would be empty without goods sourced from China.
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From New Zealand, 23% of exports (worth NZ$20 billion) went to China in 2019, and much of the country’s manufacturing has moved to China over the past 20 years. The China factor in New Zealand supply chains is also crucial, with a fifth of exports containing Chinese components.

Supply shortages from China

The world is now paying a price for this dependence on China. Since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 there has been volatility in the supply of products ranging from cars and Apple phones to food ingredients and hand sanitiser packaging.

More worryingly, availability of popular over-the-counter painkiller paracetamol was restricted due to Chinese factory closures. This is part of a bigger picture that shows Australia now importing over 90% of medicines and New Zealand importing close to NZ$1.59 billion in pharmaceutical products in 2019. Overall, both countries are extremely vulnerable to major supply chain disruptions of medical products.

For all these reasons, a cooperative trans-Tasman manufacturing strategy should be on the table right now and in any future bilateral trade policy conversations.

The big red shed: New Zealand’s Warehouse chain sources 60% of its products from China.
http://www.shutterstock.com



Read more:
Australia depends less on Chinese trade than some might think


Opportunities for Australia and NZ

Rather than each country focusing on product specialisation or setting industrial priorities in isolation, the two economies need to discuss how best to pool resources, add value and enhance the competitive advantage of strategic industries in the region as a whole.

Currently, trans-Tasman trade primarily involves natural resources and foodstuffs flowing from New Zealand to Australia, with motor vehicles, machinery and mechanical equipment flowing the other way. Manufacturing is skewed towards Australia, but closer regional integration would mean increased flows of capital, components and finished products between the countries. We have seen this already in the primary and service sectors but not much in the manufacturing sector, especially from New Zealand to Australia.

Medical technologies and telecommunications equipment manufacturing (both critical during the pandemic) stand out as potential new areas of economic integration. In that sense, it was heartening to see major medical tech companies such as Res-Med Australia and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare in New Zealand rapidly scale up their production capacities to build respiratory devices, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment products.




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These brands enjoy a global technology edge, smart niche positioning and reputations for innovation. We need more of these inside a trans-Tasman trade and manufacturing bubble.

China still vital but balance is crucial

Key to successful regional integration will be the pooling of research and development (R&D) resources, mutual direct investment, subsidising R&D and manufacturing in emerging markets with profits from another (such as China), and value-adding specialisation in the supply chain. For example, Tait Communication in New Zealand recently invested in a new facility based in one of Australia’s largest science, technology and research centres.

Together, we can make a bigger pie.

None of this means cutting ties with China, which will remain the main importer of primary produce and food products from Australasia for the foreseeable future. And Chinese exports will still be vital. Fisher & Paykel Healthcare sells its products in about 120 countries, for example, but some of its key raw materials suppliers are Chinese.

Getting this dynamic balancing right will be key to Australia and New Zealand prospering in the inevitably uncertain – even divided – post-pandemic global business environment. And you never know, maybe one day we’ll see a “made in Australia and New Zealand” label in the aisles of The Warehouse and Bunnings.The Conversation

Hongzhi Gao, Associate professor, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Monica Ren, Lecturer/ Assistant Professor, Macquarie University

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

Fix housing and you’ll reduce risks of coronavirus and other disease in remote Indigenous communities


Nina Lansbury Hall, The University of Queensland; Andrew Redmond, The University of Queensland; Paul Memmott, The University of Queensland, and Samuel Barnes, The University of Queensland

Remote Indigenous communities have taken swift and effective action to quarantine residents against the risks of COVID-19. Under a plan developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group, entry to communities is restricted to essential visitors only. This is important, because crowded and malfunctioning housing in remote Indigenous communities heightens the risk of COVID-19 transmission. High rates of chronic disease mean COVID-19 outbreaks in Indigenous communities may cause high death rates.

The “old story” of housing, crowding and health continues to be overlooked. A partnership between the University of Queensland and Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation, in the Northern Territory’s (NT) Tennant Creek and Barkly region, re-opens this story. A new report from our work together is titled in Warumungu language as Piliyi Papulu Purrukaj-ji – “Good Housing to Prevent Sickness”. It reveals the simplicity of the solution: new housing and budgets for repairs and maintenance can improve human health.




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Infection risks rise in crowded housing

Rates of crowded households are much higher in remote communities (34%) than in urban areas (8%). Our research in the Barkly region, 500km north of Alice Springs, found up to 22 residents in some three-bedroom houses. In one crowded house, a kidney dialysis patient and seven family members had slept in the yard for over a year in order to access clinical care.

Many Indigenous Australians lease social housing because of barriers to individual land ownership in remote Australia. Repairs and maintenance are more expensive in remote areas and our research found waiting periods are long. One resident told us:

Houses [are] inspected two times a year by Department of Housing, but no repairs or maintenance. They inspect and write down faults but don’t fix. They say people will return, but it doesn’t happen.

Better ‘health hardware’ can prevent infections

The growing populations in communities are not matched by increased housing. Crowding is the inevitable result.

Crowded households place extra pressure on “health hardware”, the infrastructure that enables washing of bodies and clothing and other hygiene practices.




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We interviewed residents who told us they lacked functioning bathrooms and washing machines and that toilets were blocked. One resident said:

Scabies has come up a lot this year because of lack of water. We’ve been running out of water in the tanks. There’s no electric pump … [so] we are bathing less …

[Also] sewerage is a problem at this house. It’s blocked … The toilet bubbles up and the water goes black and leaks out. We try to keep the kids away.

A lack of health hardware increases the transmission risk of preventable, hygiene-related infectious diseases like COVID-19. Anyinginyi clinicians report skin infections are more common than in urban areas, respiratory infections affect whole families in crowded houses, and they see daily cases of eye infections.

Data that we accessed from the clinic confirmed this situation. The highest infection diagnoses were skin infections (including boils, scabies and school sores), respiratory infections, and ear, nose and throat infections (especially middle ear infection).

These infections can have long-term consequences. Repeated skin sores and throat infections from Group A streptococcal bacteria can contribute to chronic life-threatening conditions such as kidney disease and rheumatic heart disease (RHD). Indigenous NT residents have among the highest rates of RHD in the world, and
Indigenous children in Central Australia have the highest rates of post-infection kidney disease (APSGN).




Read more:
The answer to Indigenous vulnerability to coronavirus: a more equitable public health agenda


Reviving a vision of healthy housing and people

Crowded and unrepaired housing persists, despite the National Indigenous Reform Agreement stating over ten years ago: “Children need to live in accommodation with adequate infrastructure conducive to good hygiene … and free of overcrowding.”

Indigenous housing programs, such as the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing, have had varied success and sustainability in overcoming crowding and poor housing quality.

It is calculated about 5,500 new houses are required by 2028 to reduce the health impacts of crowding in remote communities. Earlier models still provide guidance for today’s efforts. For example, Whitlam-era efforts supported culturally appropriate housing design, while the ATSIC period of the 1990s introduced Indigenous-led housing management and culturally-specific adaptation of tenancy agreements.

Our report reasserts the call to action for both new housing and regular repairs and maintenance (with adequate budgets) of existing housing in remote communities. The lack of effective treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19 make hygiene and social distancing critical. Yet crowding and faulty home infrastructure make these measures difficult if not impossible.

Indigenous Australians living on remote country urgently need additional and functional housing. This may begin to provide the long-term gains described to us by an experienced Aboriginal health worker:

When … [decades ago] houses were built, I noticed immediately a drop in the scabies … You could see the mental change, could see the difference in families. Kids are healthier and happier. I’ve seen this repeated in other communities once housing was given – the change.


Trisha Narurla Frank contributed to the writing of this article, and other staff from Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation provided their input and consent for the sharing of these findings.The Conversation

Nina Lansbury Hall, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland; Andrew Redmond, Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland; Paul Memmott, Professor, School of Architecture, and Director, Aboriginal Environments Research Centre (AERC), The University of Queensland, and Samuel Barnes, Research Assistant, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland

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

Here’s what you can eat and avoid to reduce your risk of bowel cancer



It’s not certain why, but fibre has protective effects against bowel cancer.
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Suzanne Mahady, Monash University

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. In 2017, bowel cancer was the second most common cancer in Australia and rates are increasing in people under 50.

Up to 35% of cancers worldwide might be caused by lifestyle factors such as diet and smoking. So how can we go about reducing our risk of bowel cancer?




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What to eat

Based on current evidence, a high fibre diet is important to reduce bowel cancer risk. Fibre can be divided into 2 types: insoluble fibre, which creates a bulky stool that can be easily passed along the bowel; and soluble fibre, which draws in water to keep the stool soft.

Fibre from cereal and wholegrains is an ideal fibre source. Australian guidelines suggest aiming for 30g of fibre per day for adults, but fewer than 20% of Australian adults meet that target.

Wheat bran is one of the richest sources of fibre, and in an Australian trial in people at high risk of bowel cancer, 25g of wheat bran reduced precancerous growths. Wheat bran can be added to cooking, smoothies and your usual cereal.

It’s not clear how fibre may reduce bowel cancer risk but possible mechanisms include reducing the time it takes food to pass through the gut (and therefore exposure to potential carcinogens), or through a beneficial effect on gut bacteria.

Once bowel cancer is diagnosed, a high fibre diet has also been associated with improved survival.

Dairy is ‘probably’ protective against bowel cancer.
from http://www.shutterstock.com



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Milk and dairy products are also thought to reduce bowel cancer risk. The evidence for milk is graded as “probably protective” in current Australian bowel cancer guidelines, with the benefit increasing with higher amounts.

Oily fish may also have some protective elements. In people with hereditary conditions that make them prone to developing lots of precancerous growths (polyps) in the bowel, a trial where one group received a daily supplement of an omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (found in fish oil) and one group received a placebo, found that this supplement was associated with reduced polyp growth. Whether this is also true for people at average risk of bowel cancer, which is most of the population, is unknown.

And while only an observational study (meaning it only shows a correlation, and not that one caused the other), a study of bowel cancer patients showed improved survival was associated with daily consumption of coffee.

What to avoid

It’s best to avoid large quantities of meat. International cancer authorities affirm there is convincing evidence for a relationship between high meat intake and bowel cancer. This includes red meat, derived from mammalian muscle such as beef, veal, lamb, pork and goat, and processed meat such as ham, bacon and sausages.

Processed meats have undergone a preservation technique such as smoking, salting or the addition of chemical preservatives which are associated with the production of compounds that may be carcinogenic.

Evidence also suggests a “dose-response” relationship, with cancer risk rising with increasing meat intake, particularly processed meats. Current Australian guidelines suggest minimising intake of processed meats as much as possible, and eating only moderate amounts of red meat (up to 100g per day).

What else can I do to reduce the risk of bowel cancer?

The key to reducing cancer risk is leading an overall healthy lifestyle. Adequate physical activity and avoiding excess fat around the tummy area is important. Other unhealthy lifestyle behaviours such as eating lots of processed foods have been associated with increased cancer risk.

And for Australians over 50, participating in the National Bowel Cancer Screening program is one of the most effective, and evidence-based ways, to reduce your risk.




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The Conversation


Suzanne Mahady, Gastroenterologist & Clinical Epidemiologist, Senior Lecturer, Monash University

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

Are there certain foods you can eat to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease?



Eating healthy foods doesn’t just improve our physical health. It can benefit our mental health, too.
From shutterstock.com

Ralph Martins, Macquarie University

With the rise of fad diets, “superfoods”, and a growing range of dietary supplement choices, it’s sometimes hard to know what to eat.

This can be particularly relevant as we grow older, and are trying to make the best choices to minimise the risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart (cardiovascular) problems.

We now have evidence these health problems also all affect brain function: they increase nerve degeneration in the brain, leading to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain conditions including vascular dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

We know a healthy diet can protect against conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Fortunately, evidence shows that what’s good for the body is generally also good for the brain.




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Oxidative stress

As we age, our metabolism becomes less efficient, and is less able to get rid of compounds generated from what’s called “oxidative stress”.

The body’s normal chemical reactions can sometimes cause chemical damage, or generate side-products known as free radicals – which in turn cause damage to other chemicals in the body.

To neutralise these free radicals, our bodies draw on protective mechanisms, in the form of antioxidants or specific proteins. But as we get older, these systems become less efficient. When your body can no longer neutralise the free radical damage, it’s under oxidative stress.

The toxic compounds generated by oxidative stress steadily build up, slowly damaging the brain and eventually leading to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.




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To reduce your risk, you need to reduce oxidative stress and the long-term inflammation it can cause.

Increasing physical activity is important. But here we are focusing on diet, which is our major source of ANTIoxidants.

Foods to add

There are plenty of foods you can include in your diet that will positively influence brain health. These include fresh fruits, seafood, green leafy vegetables, pulses (including beans, lentils and peas), as well as nuts and healthy oils.

Fish

Fish is a good source of complete protein. Importantly, oily fish in particular is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Laboratory studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids protect against oxidative stress, and they’ve been found to be lacking in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

They are essential for memory, learning and cognitive processes, and improve the gut microbiota and function.

Oily fish, like salmon, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows can benefit our brain health.
From shutterstock.com

Low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, meanwhile, is linked to faster cognitive decline, and the development of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease (changes in the brain that can be seen several years before for onset of symptoms such as memory loss).

Omega-3 fatty acids are generally lacking in western diets, and this has been linked to reduced brain cell health and function.

Fish also provides vitamin D. This is important because a lack of vitamin D has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and vascular dementia (a common form of dementia caused by reduced blood supply to the brain as a result of a series of small strokes).

Berries

Berries are especially high in the antioxidants vitamin C (strawberries), anthocyanins (blueberries, raspberries and blackberries) and resveratrol (blueberries).

In research conducted on mouse brain cells, anthocyanins have been associated with lower toxic Alzheimer’s disease-related protein changes, and reduced signs of oxidative stress and inflammation specifically related to brain cell (neuron) damage. Human studies have shown improvements in brain function and blood flow, and signs of reduced brain inflammation.




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Red and purple sweet potato

Longevity has been associated with a small number of traditional diets, and one of these is the diet of the Okinawan people of Japan. The starchy staple of their diet is the purple sweet potato – rich in anthocyanin antioxidants.

Studies in mice have shown this potato’s anthocyanins protect against the effects of obesity on blood sugar regulation and cognitive function, and can reduce obesity-induced brain inflammation.

Green vegetables and herbs

The traditional Mediterranean diet has also been studied for its links to longevity and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Green vegetables and herbs feature prominently in this diet. They are rich sources of antioxidants including vitamins A and C, folate, polyphenols such as apigenin, and the carotenoid xanthophylls (especially if raw). A carotenoid is an orange or red pigment commonly found in carrots.

Green vegetables and herbs provide us with several types of antioxidants.
From shutterstock.com

The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals in the vegetables are believed to be responsible for slowing Alzheimer’s pathology development, the build up of specific proteins which are toxic to brain cells.

Parsley is rich in apigenin, a powerful antioxidant. It readily crosses the barrier between the blood and the brain (unlike many drugs), where it reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, and helps brain tissue recovery after injury.




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Beetroot

Beetroot is a rich source of folate and polyphenol antioxidants, as well as copper and manganese. In particular, beetroot is rich in betalain pigments, which reduce oxidative stress and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Due to its nitrate content, beetroot can also boost the body’s nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels resulting in lowered blood pressure, a benefit which has been associated with drinking beetroot juice.

A recent review of clinical studies in older adults also indicated clear benefits of nitrate-rich beetroot juice on the health of our hearts and blood vessels.

Foods to reduce

Equally as important as adding good sources of antioxidants to your diet is minimising foods that are unhealthy: some foods contain damaged fats and proteins, which are major sources of oxidative stress and inflammation.

A high intake of “junk foods” including sweets, soft drinks, refined carbohydrates, processed meats and deep fried foods has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Where these conditions are are all risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, they should be kept to a minimum to reduce health risks and improve longevity.




Read more:
Health check: can eating certain foods make you smarter?


The Conversation


Ralph Martins, Professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Macquarie University

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

Hand sanitisers in public won’t wipe out the flu but they might help reduce its spread



It’s quicker to use hand sanitiser than soap and water, which means people might be more likely to use it.
Shutterstock

Trent Yarwood, The University of Queensland

This year’s flu season is off to an early start, with 144,000 confirmed cases so far in 2019. That’s more than twice as many confirmed cases of the flu than for all of 2018 (58,000), and almost as many as the 2017 horror flu season (251,000).

The number of cases so far this year, including more than 231 deaths nationwide, led the NSW opposition health spokesperson to call for hand sanitisers in public spaces to help slow the spread.




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Influenza spreads via droplets from coughing and sneezing, which is why it’s a good idea to catch your cough. But coughing into your hand can leave flu virus on your hands, which is why we recommend coughing into your elbow or sleeve and washing your hands afterwards.

Along with getting vaccinated and staying home if you’re sick, washing your hands is the best defence against getting the flu.

If the government can make this easier by providing hand sanitisers in public places, it may be worth the investment. It won’t solve our flu problem but it might be an important tool in the toolbox of measures to reduce its spread.

What does the research say?

The scientific literature on hand sanitisers isn’t so clear-cut.

A 2019 study in university colleges showed the use of hand hygiene and face masks didn’t protect against flu any better than mask use alone. But unlike some other countries, Australia doesn’t have a strong habit of mask use when people are unwell, so this may not be very helpful to us.

A 2014 study in New Zealand schools showed that providing sanitiser didn’t reduce the rate of absenteeism from school either.

While these studies make it sound like hand sanitiser is not very effective, that’s not the end of the story.

Other studies show a positive effect – a 16% reduction in respiratory illness in one and a 21% reduction in another. For some infections, the evidence is even stronger – for example, gastroenteritis, most of which is also viral.

However, few of these studies showing the benefits of hand sanitisers were done during a large disease outbreak, which means the potential benefit may be even greater.

Not all influenza-like illness is caused by the flu – it can be other viruses as well, so the estimates are a bit rubbery at best. Hand sanitiser trials which look at influenza-like illness or respiratory infections generally are more likely to show benefits than those that just look for influenza – meaning good hand hygiene prevents other infections as well.

If you have the flu, the best place to be is at home.
Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

Lessons from hospitals

Although preventing infection in hospitals is not the same as doing it in the community, there are two important lessons from hospital infection control.

First, in hospital hand-hygiene programs, hand sanitiser is more effective than soap-and-water hand-washing, provided your hands aren’t visibly dirty.

This is partly because of the rapid effect of the alcohol, but mostly because it’s much quicker and therefore more likely that staff will use it.




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The second important point from hand hygiene and other areas of hospital infection control is that introducing a “bundle” of strategies usually reduces healthcare-associated infection rates – even when the individual parts of these bundles don’t show benefits alone.

This could be because the individual effect sizes are too small, or that change in practice highlights a “safety culture”.

Sanitisers can be one of many strategies

Installing hand rub in public areas won’t solve this year’s flu outbreak by itself. But it can be part of a bundle of strategies – as long as the dispensers are kept topped up.

And it’s certainly a safe intervention – despite some desperate hysteria about the safety of hand gels, or the risk of people drinking them, there is little evidence this actually occurs in reality.

Hand sanitiser is also likely to be easier to implement than fixing the much larger social problem of Australians going to work when they’re sick. This may be because of inadequate sick leave, concerns about “letting the team down”, or other logistical problems such as child-care.

Get your flu vaccine – even now it’s still not too late – and get it for your kids as well, for their sake as well as your own.

Remember to stay home if you’re unwell, and always to cough into your sleeve. And don’t forget to clean your hands – even if the government doesn’t end up making it easier for you.




Read more:
The 2019 flu shot isn’t perfect – but it’s still our best defence against influenza


The Conversation


Trent Yarwood, Infectious Diseases Physician, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and, The University of Queensland

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

As responsible digital citizens, here’s how we can all reduce racism online



File 20190409 2918 9q8zs6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
No matter how innocent you think it is, what you type into search engines can shape how the internet behaves.
Hannah Wei / unsplash, CC BY

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Queensland University of Technology

Have you ever considered that what you type into Google, or the ironic memes you laugh at on Facebook, might be building a more dangerous online environment?

Regulation of online spaces is starting to gather momentum, with governments, consumer groups, and even digital companies themselves calling for more control over what is posted and shared online.

Yet we often fail to recognise the role that you, me and all of us as ordinary citizens play in shaping the digital world.

The privilege of being online comes with rights and responsibilities, and we need to actively ask what kind of digital citizenship we want to encourage in Australia and beyond.




Read more:
How the use of emoji on Islamophobic Facebook pages amplifies racism


Beyond the knee-jerk

The Christchurch terror attack prompted policy change by governments in both New Zealand and Australia.

Australia recently passed a new law that will enforce penalties for social media platforms if they don’t remove violent content after it becomes available online.

Platforms may well be lagging behind in their content moderation responsibilities, and still need to do better in this regard. But this kind of “kneejerk” policy response won’t solve the spread of problematic content on social media.

Addressing hate online requires coordinated efforts. Platforms must improve the enforcement of their rules (not just announce tougher measures) to guarantee users’ safety. They may also reconsider a serious redesign, because the way they currently organise, select, and recommend information often amplifies systemic problems in society like racism.




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Discrimination is entrenched

Of course, biased beliefs and content don’t just live online.

In Australia, racial discrimination has been perpetuated in public policy, and the country has an unreconciled history of Indigenous dispossession and oppression.

Today, Australia’s political mainstream is still lenient with bigots, and the media often contributes to fearmongering about immigration.

However, we can all play a part in reducing harm online.

There are three aspects we might reconsider when interacting online so as to deny oxygen to racist ideologies:

  • a better understanding of how platforms work
  • the development of empathy to identify differences in interpretation when engaging with media (rather than focusing on intent)
  • working towards a more productive anti-racism online.

Online lurkers and the amplification of harm

White supremacists and other reactionary pundits seek attention on mainstream and social media. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to name the Christchurch gunman to prevent fuelling his desired notoriety, and so did some media outlets.

The rest of us might draw comfort from not having contributed to amplifying the Christchurch attacker’s desired fame. It’s likely we didn’t watch his video or read his manifesto, let alone upload or share this content on social media.

But what about apparently less harmful practices, such as searching on Google and social media sites for keywords related to the gunman’s manifesto or his live video?

It’s not the intent behind these practices that should be the focus of this debate, but the consequences of it. Our everyday interactions on platforms influence search autocomplete algorithms and the hierarchical organisation and recommendation of information.

In the Christchurch tragedy, even if we didn’t share or upload the manifesto or the video, the zeal to access this information drove traffic to problematic content and amplified harm for the Muslim community.

Normalisation of hate through seemingly lighthearted humour

Reactionary groups know how to capitalise on memes and other jokey content that degrades and dehumanises.

By using irony to deny the racism in these jokes, these far-right groups connect and immerse new members in an online culture that deliberately uses memetic media to have fun at the expense of others.

The Christchurch terrorist attack showed this connection between online irony and the radicalisation of white men.

However, humour, irony and play – which are protected on platform policies – serve to cloak racism in more mundane and everyday contexts.




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Just as everyday racism shares discourses and vocabularies with white supremacy, lighthearted racist and sexist jokes are as harmful as online fascist irony.

Humour and satire should not be hiding places for ignorance and bigotry. As digital citizens we should be more careful about what kind of jokes we engage with and laugh at on social media.

What’s harmful and what’s a joke might not be apparent when interpreting content from a limited worldview. The development of empathy to others’ interpretations of the same content is a useful skill to minimise the amplification of racist ideologies online.

As scholar danah boyd argues:

The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media.

Effective anti-racism on social media

A common practice in challenging racism on social media is to publicly call it out, and show support for those who are victims of it. But critics of social media’s callout culture and solidarity sustain that these tactics often do not work as an effective anti-racism tool, as they are performative rather than having an advocacy effect.

An alternative is to channel outrage into more productive forms of anti-racism. For example, you can report hateful online content either individually or through organisations that are already working on these issues, such as The Online Hate Prevention Institute and the Islamophobia Register Australia.

Most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate articulates in non-US contexts. Reporting content can help platforms understand culturally specific coded words, expressions, and jokes (most of which are mediated through visual media) that moderators might not understand and algorithms can’t identify.

As digital citizens we can work together to deny attention to those that seek to discriminate and inflict harm online.

We can also learn how our everyday interactions might have unintended consequences and actually amplify hate.

However, these ideas do not diminish the responsibility of platforms to protect users, nor do they negate the role of governments to find effective ways to regulate platforms in collaboration and consultation with civil society and industry.The Conversation

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Lecturer in Digital Media at the School of Communication, Queensland University of Technology

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

Revealing how much tax companies pay doesn’t move markets or reduce tax avoidance


Roman Lanis, University of Technology Sydney; Brett Govendir, University of Technology Sydney; Peter Wells, University of Technology Sydney, and Ross McClure, University of Technology Sydney

The public disclosure of information that Australia’s largest companies give to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) on their tax returns doesn’t sway investors’ decisions and doesn’t reduce corporate tax avoidance, our research shows.

We examined the first three releases of ATO tax transparency data in 2014, 2015 and 2016, along with financial statement data and share price movements for 244 listed companies. Under the Tax Laws Amendment Act 2013 the ATO is required to disclose total revenue, taxable income, and income tax payable for these companies.




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When these companies first disclosed tax return data there was a significant negative reaction in stock prices for firms with lower effective tax rates. But the reaction wasn’t limited to companies that disclosed. This suggests investor concerns about either spill-over effects for other businesses, or a more aggressive stance on tax avoidance from the ATO.

However, for the second and third releases of ATO data, there was no reaction from the financial markets at all, not even for those firms included in the disclosures.

In combination, these results suggest that the ATO disclosures provide little new or useful information to investors about corporate tax strategies. It also shows the information the ATO currently discloses doesn’t lead to increased enforcement, and so, investors have little expectation of any increase in corporate tax payments.

What companies have to disclose to the ATO

The aim of the Tax Laws Amendment Act was to increase public scrutiny of company tax strategies through increased transparency, and ultimately discourage tax avoidance. Although only limited to the largest firms, these disclosures are exceptional.

Apart from some Scandinavian countries that have public disclosure of all tax return information, Australia’s legislation is unique. For example, the information is disclosed by the ATO rather than the companies themselves, and it’s mandatory rather than voluntary.

The disclosed information also allows us to estimate the magnitude of corporate tax avoidance among these companies.

However, the tax transparency law is still yet to meet its stated aim. This may be due to the type of information disclosed.




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The information disclosed under the current legislation was chosen with no public consultation, discourse or input. So it’s unclear whether the decision to include only certain information has been politically driven. Neither the government nor the ATO cite any research to support their choice of data to be released.

Our study demonstrates that the success of any scheme to improve company tax transparency relies on new information about corporate tax strategies being revealed. It also requires an expectation of some consequences. These could include an increase in the costs of corporate tax avoidance, such as increased scrutiny from the ATO, or additional costs to justify tax-reducing corporate structures.

The ConversationUnfortunately, it seems Australia’s law on this doesn’t meet these hurdles, and the politics of addressing corporate tax avoidance has stifled an attempt to develop an effective policy to counter it.

Roman Lanis, Associate Professor, Accounting, University of Technology Sydney; Brett Govendir, Lecturer, Accounting Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney; Peter Wells, Professor, Accounting Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney, and Ross McClure, PhD Candidate, casual academic, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Six things you can do to reduce your risk of dementia



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Challenging and training your brain is important to prevent dementia risk.
Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Helen Macpherson, Deakin University

An ageing population is leading to a growing number of people living with dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms including memory impairment, confusion, and loss of ability to carry out everyday activities.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and causes a progressive decline in brain health.

Dementia affects more than 425,000 Australians. It is the second-ranked cause of death overall, and the leading cause in women.

The main risk factor for dementia is older age. Around 30% of people aged over 85 live with dementia. Genetic influences also play a role in the onset of the disease, but these are stronger for rarer types of dementia such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.




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Although we can’t change our age or genetic profile, there are nevertheless several lifestyle changes we can make that will reduce our dementia risk.

1. Engage in mentally stimulating activities

Education is an important determinant of dementia risk. Having less than ten years of formal education can increase the chances of developing dementia. People who don’t complete any secondary school have the greatest risk.

The good news is that we can still strengthen our brain at any age, through workplace achievement and leisure activities such as reading newspapers, playing card games, or learning a new language or skill.

Even playing cards can strengthen your brain.
Photo by Inês Ferreira on Unsplash

The evidence suggests that group-based training for memory and problem-solving strategies could improve long-term cognitive function. But this evidence can’t be generalised to computerised “brain training” programs. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities in a social setting may also contribute to the success of cognitive training.




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2. Maintain social contact

More frequent social contact (such as visiting friends and relatives or talking on the phone) has been linked to lower risk of dementia, while loneliness may increase it.

Greater involvement in group or community activities is associated with a lower risk. Interestingly, size of friendship group appears less relevant than having regular contact with others.

3. Manage weight and heart health

There is a strong link between heart and brain health. High blood pressure and obesity, particularly during mid-life, increase the risk of dementia. Combined, these conditions may contribute to more than 12% of dementia cases.

In an analysis of data from more than 40,000 people, those who had type 2 diabetes were up to twice as likely to develop dementia as healthy people.

Managing or reversing these conditions through the use of medication and/or diet and exercise is crucial to reducing dementia risk.

Exercise is protective for heart health and diabetes, as well as against cognitive decline.
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

4. Get more exercise

Physical activity has been shown to protect against cognitive decline. In data combined from more than 33,000 people, those who were highly physically active had a 38% lower risk of cognitive decline compared with those who were inactive.

Precisely how much exercise is enough to maintain cognition is still under debate. But a recent review of studies looking at the effects of taking exercise for a minimum of four weeks suggested that sessions should last at least 45 minutes and be of moderate to high intensity. This means huffing and puffing and finding it difficult to maintain a conversation.




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Australians generally don’t meet the target of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

5. Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoking is harmful to heart health, and the chemicals found in cigarettes trigger inflammation and vascular changes in the brain. They can also trigger oxidative stress, in which chemicals called free radicals can cause damage to our cells. These processes may contribute to the development of dementia.

The good news is that smoking rates in Australia have dropped from 28% to 16% since 2001.

As dementia risk is higher in current smokers compared with past smokers and non-smokers, this provides yet another incentive to quit once and for all.

6. Seek help for depression

Around one million Australian adults are currently living with depression. In depression, some changes occur in the brain that may affect dementia risk. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to shrinkage of brain regions that are important for memory.

High blood pressure can increase the risk of dementia.
Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Vascular disease, which causes damage to blood vessels, has also been observed in both depression and dementia. Researchers suggests that long-term oxidative stress and inflammation may also contribute to both conditions.




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A 28-year study of more than 10,000 people found that dementia risk was only increased in those who had depression in the ten years before diagnosis. One possibility is that late-life depression can reflect an early symptom of dementia.

Other studies have shown that having depression before the age of 60 still increases dementia risk, so seeking treatment for depression is encouraged.

Other things to consider

Reducing dementia risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you will never develop dementia. But it does mean that, at a population level, fewer people will be affected. Recent estimates suggest that up to 35% of all dementia cases may be due to the risk factors outlined above.

This figure also includes management of hearing loss, although the evidence for this is less well established.

The contribution of sleep disturbances and diet to dementia risk are emerging as important, and will likely receive more consideration as the evidence base grows.

The ConversationEven though dementia may be seen as an older person’s disease, harmful processes can occur in the brain for several decades before dementia appears. This means that now is the best time to take action to reduce your risk.

Helen Macpherson, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Media reform deals will reduce diversity and amount to little more than window dressing


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The latest reforms will do nothing to prevent further concentration of Australia’s media landscape.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

The breakthrough in negotiations with the Senate crossbenchers that the government has been chipping away at over media reform has finally arrived.

The deregulatory legislation, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, required 38 votes to pass the Senate, where the Coalition controls 29 votes. It had already secured the support of three crossbenchers and four One Nation senators, but was waiting for just two votes to get it over the line – until Nick Xenophon did the deal.

After protracted negotiations with Xenophon and his NXT party, the Coalition has arrived at a quid pro quo deal that sees the repeal of the remaining cross-media diversity rules, after the government agreed to NXT’s proposal to introduce funding grants for small and regional publishers. Clearly, though, they are not the “substantial quid pro quo” for public interest journalism that Xenophon has trumpeted, which had previously included tax breaks.

The main features of the bill are:

  • repeal of the “two-out-of-three” rule and the 75% reach rule;

  • the creation of a one-off A$50 million innovation fund for smaller and regional publishers, whose turnover is between A$300,000 and A$30 million. This is capped at $1 million per publisher and available from mid-2018; and

  • the creation of 200 cadetships and 60 scholarships.

The government will also direct the ACCC to conduct an inquiry into the advertising practices of Google and Facebook and their impact on journalism.

Funding for these publishers will require them to meet specific eligibility criteria, including membership of the Australian Press Council and having ethical guidelines in place. It will need to be for the purposes of news production, and civic and public interest journalism from a local perspective. The Australian Communications and Media Authority will oversee the distribution of the funds.

Recipients of the grants must be majority Australian-owned, pass an independence test, and not be affiliated with a political party, union, super fund or lobby group.

These eligibility criteria means some publishers will not have access to these meagre funds. For example, offshore controlled or owned online publications such as The Guardian and Buzzfeed, or a publisher like The New Daily, which is closely affiliated with super funds, would miss out.

Other horsetrading has led to amendments that assist community television, a welcome rescue measure for the sector. It includes a controversial measure such as the A$30 million gift to Fox Sports for women’s and niche sports – a commercial broadcaster that can be accessed by less than 30% of the Australian population.

A major A$90 million gift to commercial free-to-air broadcasters in the form of licence fee removals raises the question of whether something was given in return.

The obvious quid pro quo here is an agreement secured to remove gambling advertising in prime time.

In the wider frame of high industry concentration and the dominance of US-based hegemons, Xenophon’s measures are a minimalistic band-aid response, which will do nothing to prevent further concentration of Australia’s media landscape.

The NXT “wins” are really only window dressing. The One Nation “wins” in relation to further scrutiny on the ABC are a ludicrous attempt at payback for critical coverage.

The more principled approach of Labor and the Greens, who did not support the repeal of the two-out-of-three diversity maintaining rule, is laudable – and may yet form the basis of real media reform in their next federal election campaigns.

The earlier proposed tax breaks for genuine public interest journalism reporting the news and informing the public had the potential to help keep some small players afloat. But one-off grants of A$1 million are hardly going to save struggling publishers.

On the face of it since eligible beneficiaries will be News Corporation and Fairfax Media competitors, many would think this must be a step in the right direction. However, it really is a drop in the ocean compared with the resources of the majors. It will do nothing to remedy the major problem of longer term concentration which needs a complete redesign of the regulatory framework fit for the 21st century.

The opportunity for a root-and-branch analysis of media consumption by Australian audiences, an agency tasked to effectively do that and tracking the transitioning news industries, with commensurate resources and diversity mechanisms has, once again, been sidestepped.

These latest negotiations follow a decade of attempts by conservative governments to dismantle media ownership restrictions.

These minor funding measures do nothing to address the underlying problem of an increasingly concentrated media landscape (where the vast bulk of the eyeballs are anyway). The more serious mechanisms that have been ventilated in the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism — such as direct financial subsidies — have not got a look in.

A 2014 study prepared for the London School of Economics looked at countries with direct financial support for their news industries (the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Austria, France). The support was for up to 50 years, no matter the party in power. The report concluded that:

Policymakers can support private media organisations with mechanisms such as tax relief or even direct subsidies to specific media companies. Such support need not compromise media independence if safeguards such as statutory eligibility criteria are in place.

The authors’ view was that the reality of convergence meant support of private media should be extended to online media.

Serious diversity mechanisms such as indirect tax measures and direct measures like subsidies did not pass muster in the historically cosy relations between politicians and media proprietors.

Real alternatives with impact are possible. In the Swedish subsidy scheme, for example, eligible print or digital newspapers need to have less than 30% market share.

While subsidies contribute only 2-3% of total industry revenue, they amount to 15-20% of revenue for weaker titles that are their main beneficiaries. For a handful, the subsidy represents up to 33% of total earnings.

Of greater importance to the survival of smaller publishers, these minor funding measures do very little to address the fact that 90% of new online ad spending is controlled by Google and Facebook. So why doesn’t the government introduce a levy on these two players to fund public interest journalism as suggested by the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism?

While there are still some ownership controls (minimum of five media voices in metro and four in regional and rural markets), and local content requirements that remain in place, these will not stop further media concentration.

A single person cannot control more than two radio stations or more than one television station in a single market. In regional markets there is still a requirement of 21 minutes of local content a day – a fairly low bar most agree. However, News Corp Australia, for example, which already owns around two-thirds of the print media sector, would be allowed to buy up all the traditional categories of media (TV, radio, and print) in any single market.

The ConversationIn cities such as Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart, where there is already only one daily newspaper, the consequences of further concentration are stark.


CC BY-ND

Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.