Last night’s episode of ABC’s QandA showed how the government’s failure to deliver timely, clear information in response to coronavirus is generating panic and fear in the community.

With an audience of only a dozen or so, spread at least 1.5 metres apart throughout the studio, the effects of how coronavirus is changing our world were visible from the show’s opening scenes.

Host Hamish McDonald said show organisers had received more questions than for any other episode, and they hoped that by answering them they might be able to alleviate some of the concerns in the community.

A montage of video questions revealed the extent of the community’s concerns. There were questions about the adequacy of coronavirus testing, how the homeless can self isolate, about how to cope if your financial situation does not allow you to stop working even if sick, and concerns that Australia is headed towards the scenes we have seen in Italy where patients are deemed lower priority are simply left to die.

Government directives not clear

The first question, from Lori-Anne Sharp, Assistant Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, demonstrated the uncertainty in the community about the information they are receiving from the government.

Ms Sharp asked when the government will stop non-essential visits to aged care facilities.

Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, said the Department of Health had already issued advice to aged care facilities about limiting visitors to aged care. 

“That’s a very pertinent question considering we put some advice out over the weekend and today to the aged care sector to ensure infection control plans are in place, but also to limit access to aged care facilities,” Mr Colbeck said.

He said the advice was “comprehensive” at 48 pages, and described what people with families in aged care can and can not do.

“Some of the things include, who’s coming in, what are their risk factors, do they have an illness. People who don’t need to be there, don’t come in, limit your visits. A range of things. Extensive advice has been sent out to the sector,” he said.

Mr McDonald asked the panel if that was clear enough.

Lack of clarity creating “panic”

Katy Gallagher, shadow minister for finance and former health and chief minister in the ACT who also has experience in planning for pandemics, said accurate, clear information was fundamental to the community’s response to coronavirus.  

“Access to information, clarity of information and consistency of information is key to ensuring confidence and trust in the community,” she said.

“When you’re out and about in the community, that’s not a sense you pick up. 

“There are high levels of anxiety, high levels of panic” due to “different interpretations” of information, she said. 

Government could have acted in January

Bill Bowtell, an infection control expert who was himself in self-isolation after being in contact with someone who has coronavirus, said the government has been too slow with its response.

“You are not ahead of the curve,” he said. 

“The minister for health today said we are facing exponential growth. The hospitals can’t cope with that.”

“You’ve had since the 10th of January to do this. When the situation got serious in Taiwan they created a national unified command on January 20th. That was eight weeks ago. Nothing like that was done here. There was no public education campaign. There was no mobilisation of the people. The state governments did not sanitise and disinfect the transport systems.” 

“As recently as Friday, your prime minister was saying ‘there’s nothing to see here’. (There’s) social distancing next week, but everybody go out and it’s not a problem. 

“On Friday, the prime minister said there would be bans on meetings of 500 on Monday, but not today. Today the US says 50, in Austria it’s 5. 

“Have you not looked at the calamity that’s overtaken Italy and France and Denmark and Austria? And the success of Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore?” Mr Bostell asked the minister.

“It has come a bit late”

The government’s public information campaign took a long time to put together and some question if it’s enough, Mr. McDonald said. He asked Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, a GP and former head of the AMA who has set up a pop-up, drive through testing clinics in Melbourne, if the government’s tardiness had damaged Australia’s response to coronavirus.

“My fear is it has come a bit late…” said Dr. Haikerwal.

“I think the information we have been getting… has been quite ‘bitty’,” he said. “I think the level of fear has gone up.”

He said there is still a lot of uncertainty and fear in the community, but the government’s recent support for telehealth consultations was a step in the right direction.

“If that had come on the back of an advertising campaign, or some other good, solid ‘one hymn sheet, one song’ (approach), we might have had a better chance of getting through it,” Dr Haikerwal said.


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