TERRY SLEVIN. The Silver lining on the coronavirus cloud.

Apr 29, 2020

Among the extraordinary health devastation, and social and economic disruption of COVID19, comes some benefits.  Will we be able to identify and capture them and will we be able to sustain them? Will public health become a higher priority for governments?

As the extraordinary health toll mounts around the world, it might seem perverse to be talking about the positive impacts of the pandemic crisis that has changed our lives.  But the changes are enormous, real, immediate and many have potential benefit worth reflecting upon.

  1. Governments working together across the political divide: The national cabinet has clearly been a valuable tool to deal with this crisis.  States working together.  Jurisdictions working co-operatively with the Commonwealth.  Genuine – albeit not perfect – national leadership, with Oppositions seeking to be constructive rather than opposing for the sake of it.
  2. A more realistic social wage is born: With the introduction of “Jobkeeper” and the doubling of “Newstart” to create “Jobseeker”, the government has set a more realistic wage. Let’s hope the living wage outlasts the virus.
  3. Childcare is valued: The introduction of free childcare in certain circumstances, and the recognition of its importance as a key piece of community infrastructure, is another welcome development.
  4. Physical Activity Exercise is one of only a few reasons we are allowed to leave our homes. All ages, shapes and sizes are looking at ways to “find 30”.  Yoga and aerobics in front of the large screen telly, walking the dog’s paws off, public push ups, tai chi by the river – it is all out and on display.  Physical activity researchers will no doubt be looking to capture the impact of COVID19 on the activity levels of the nation.
  5. Sleep: Are we all getting a little more sleep?  Fewer people are undertaking the long commute to work and those still doing so are presumably doing it in record time.  Similarly, going out at night has pretty much stopped. Perhaps a little more sleep is an upside? I hope the data capture is in place to test this theory.
  6. Less of the things that do us harm: While no one is happy about the reduced employment of those working in these organisations and sectors, will closed pubs, clubs, pokie venues, and gun shops result in less social harm?  Or will there be more alcohol consumed in the home, causing major problems?  We’ll see what the data says, but let’s make sure the data is captured.
  7. Reduced travel and congestion; reduced impact on the environment: Decongested roads, airports and airways due to COVID-19 might be recognised as highly beneficial as it will slow down C02 emissions and the inhabitability of the planet. Who knows, perhaps we will become more determined to tackle these issues seriously.
  8. We are buying less “stuff”:  This experience where “lock down” means we have less chance to buy “stuff”, might jolt some into wondering if it is necessary to return to old “buy first ask questions later” habits.  There are flip sides, however. Retailers and their employees reliant on sales for their livelihoods should not be forgotten. Nor should those in low and middle income countries who rely on the unacceptably low income they earn from the production of some of these items.
  9. We are all learning new skills:  By necessity we are all learning how to stay in touch via new means.  My 85-year-old mum joins in on the family “Zoom pub” gathering on Sunday night (5pm all-round the nation – don’t miss it). With a big family scattered across the time zones, Christmas was the only time of year most of us could see each other at one time.  Now we can set it up to do anytime (almost).  How will these newfound skills influence our post COVID world?
  10. More people “get” Public Health: Everyone’s understanding of what Public Health really is seems to have been boosted.  Perhaps public health issues will be given more consideration in the big public policy issues in the medium and long term.  Will there be calls to establish “Public Health Australia”, or the Australian Centre for Disease Control? How might this work and what will it look like?  What resources will be needed?
  11. Roy and HG are back on the public Broadcaster:  If you are not familiar with their work, it would be too hard to explain.
  12. Isolated but connected? Perhaps the big one – we will all have an acute appreciation of the value of contact with other people in our lives. If nothing else comes from this, it seems to me worth doing all we can to never lose sight of that lesson.  More than anything else that has occurred to the whole community, we all now have a slightly better understanding of what loneliness and isolation does to people.  And it is awful.

It seems wise that researchers with an interest in almost any area of public health will be ensuring their data capture processes are well entrenched and solid, to best capture and report on the impacts, for better and worse, of this pandemic.

There are without doubt vitally important lessons to learn from this crisis.  Public health advocates must be ready to apply their lens to those lessons to better understand and influence the post COVID19 world for the better.

Terry Slevin is CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia. He holds Adjunct Professorial titles at the ANU College of Health and Medicine and the Curtin University School of Psychology.  This article was first published in the PHAA’s In Touch blog.


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