Coronavirus: Preparing, not panicking

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(Image by @kittymeetsgoat / Flickr)

The COVID-19 pandemic will only get worse and the situation has not been helped by weak political leadership but Dr Martin Hirst says he’s preparing, not panicking.

I AM SITTING at home today contemplating my likely movements, appointments and work commitments for the coming week. It’s an exercise I do at the start of every week to prepare for the next seven days.

But today feels different. I am feeling disconnected from this week and even from the week after this. I had to stop and think about why, but now I know: I am thinking about self-isolation, social distancing and planning for the reality of it.

Know your own risk

I’m in my mid-60s so my risk of serious complications from a COVID-19 infection is moderate. According to the experts between three and 4% of people in my 60-70 age group will die from coronavirus. I’m beginning to feel that is an unacceptable risk and not one I am willing to take.

I’m reasonably healthy; I don’t smoke, my drinking is very moderate these days and I don’t have any comorbid illness, though my lungs are a bit compromised from decades of marijuana use.

My concern (or irrational fear if you want to scoff) is that I will get infected and not be able to receive medical care because of the health system being overwhelmed. I just don’t want to take a chance.

So, I’m trying to prepare for a situation in which avoiding infection is going to become harder and harder. We know how the virus is spread and we know that once it is spreading in a community the number of infections grows exponentially.

Waiting for disaster is not preparing

In Italy in a two-week period at the beginning of March, new case reports rocketed from 50 per day to over 1,500. This makes Italy the new hot centre, while in countries where social distancing and self-isolation measures were rolled out quickly, infection rates have been slower.

We also know that in Australia and the United States (among other countries) the response has been slower, and the mixed messaging about social distancing and self-isolation have been confused by the political bravado of incompetent leadership. Should we shake hands or not? Is it okay to send the kids to school?

I’m not confident that the authorities have really got a handle on the situation. There is confusion around the testing regime, there is confusion around whether it is okay to be in a crowd and there is confusion about the socio-economic response.

However, I don’t think there’s any confusion around the question of how the next few days and weeks will unfold in terms of infections. The spike is not here yet in Australia, but it is inevitable.

Given the profile of the virus and that asymptomatic carriers can be infectious, we simply don’t know how far into the general population it might have already spread. None of us can be 100% confident that a co-worker, family member, friend or random person sitting next to us in a public place is not already infectious.

That could be cause for alarm, but it shouldn’t be. Instead, we should be calm and think about how best we can prepare for the inevitable shut down of our major cities, transport routes and everyday conveniences like supermarkets, cafes, bookshops and gyms.

Last weekend saw the gradual shutting down of public events and places that draw crowds. Gatherings of over 500 people are now being discouraged. This is only the beginning.

Preparing for mass closures of public places

The point will come, sooner rather than later, when schools, colleges and universities will close, at least for a short period. Workplaces will also start to shut down and this is when the financial pain will kick in for many people who never even come into contact with the virus.

The Morrison Government’s response has so far been totally inadequate. The “stimulus package” is a charade of half-measures and pointless virtue-signalling. Those most in need will actually see very little of the alleged $4.1 billion set aside for sickness payments.

The Australian welfare system is deliberately designed to discourage people from applying for even temporary payments. Just reading through the “how to apply” page is enough to put you off. Then there’s the ten to 15 documents you need, the means test and the waiting period. Most people will either be dead or recovered before they’re eligible for a payment. Even if you are eligible, you will have to spend all your savings (and those of your partner, if you have one) before you get a payment.

It seems that Morrison simply used the health crisis of COVID-19 to sling even more taxpayer funds to his business mates, to further pork the barrels in marginal seats throughout regional Australia. These gifts are in the form of investment write-offs and cash payments for small businesses that will go to the bottom line rather than wages and a nebulous scheme.

The stark reality is that millions of working Australians are going to be quarantined at home in the coming weeks and most of them will not be getting paid wages or sickness benefits for that amount of time.

The Federal Government should be directing all its financial aid towards workers who are forced to abandon their jobs as offices, factories, schools, shops, universities, TAFE systems and public transport are gradually shut down.

The economy shuts down soon

The economy is going to grind to a halt. Workers will lose weeks of income that they will never get back, but their bills will keep on mounting. Rents will still need to be paid, credit card debt will still accrue interest at 19%. Workers will shoulder the burden of the health risk and the economic risk of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If Josh Frydenberg gave every working Australian (about 10 million) and every welfare recipient (about 5 million) a cut of the $17 billion stimulus package, each one would get about $1,100 to spend when the lockdown is lifted.

This is how you pump-prime the economy, not by the smoke and mirrors of the package produced last week.

I am backing the ACTU’s call for all casual and part-time workers to be given government assistance to tide them over. Having to stay away from work will be particularly tough for those in hospitality and retail or other forms of precarious employment. These areas will be very hard hit in the next couple of weeks.

Telling these people to line up and apply for sickness payments is a cruel hoax. It’s good to see that some unions have won paid leave for employees displaced by business closures.

This has to be the norm, not the exception.

I work from home, some of my clients may want to cancel appointments, but whatever happens I’m planning to begin my self-quarantining this week. I may go to my university classes on Wednesday and Friday, but I’m not sure. I am certain that by the end of this week or next, schools and universities will be closing their doors.

I will be doing a survival shop at the supermarket too. Not hoarding 60 tins of beans but ensuring that I have enough groceries in my pantry to prepare about 50 simple meals for myself and my wife. I’ll also make sure there’s enough cat food for Callie and Hibou.

I’m also preparing to be really angry at the way Morrison has handled this crisis. He’s been slow to act and the economic response is pathetic. I won’t be surprised to see protests and riots in the next few weeks and months.

I also think it would be wise to get ready for a lot of family, friends and acquaintances to be sick in the next little while. I’ll try to prepare and not panic about that too.

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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