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So many COVID questions, looking for answers

What the hell are we doing, asks virologist Dr Ian M. Mackay, in an article that raises plenty of pertinent, pointed questions for federal, state and territory governments and health departments.

The article below was first published at his blog, Virology Down Under, under the title, ‘Whatever happened to communication?’


Ian M Mackay writes:

I’m not an expert in many things. But I’m enough of a scientist to conclude with confidence that what’s happening now with COVID-19 in Australia and in many other countries is the ongoing abandonment of communities by those they most need to help and advise them during a time they most need that help and advice.

A lot of the world is in, or about to be in, the biggest, most forecastable surge of SARS-CoV-2 that we’ve yet faced. We saw it coming from the end of last year. This is at a time when many of those wanting a vaccine have been vaccinated.

The wave is driven by the latest, but not the last, mutant from a fractured variant of concern called Omicron. The BA.5 problem child is capable of escaping vaccine protection while at the same time interacting with the imprint of earlier infections to create limited, long-lasting immunity to itself. Reinfections abound and can be separated by a matter of weeks.

We have learned that this virus is mostly transmitted via air, yet there is no education campaign to spell that out to the public – unless your Chief Health Officer’s last name is Sutton.

(Watch the clips: 21 December, 2021 on ventilation advice; 7 April, 2022 on improving ventilation for businesses).

Explanations needed

We know masks reduce the risk of acquiring the virus – they quite literally filter out particles – of course, they bloody work to protect you to some extent. But like everything, they are imperfect, and there are subtleties that need to be conveyed.

So, where is the education campaign extolling the virtues of wearing a good mask well? What about some explanations of why the masks we wore earlier aren’t as good as what we could be wearing?

How about we be honest and say that masks work, but it only takes one lapse or one exposure for your household to be exposed – something to modify expectations to align with reality.

How is there so little action to improve standards of air quality?

This will reduce harm, save lives and lessen the economic impact of all respiratory viruses – you know, influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial viruses, human metapneumoviruses, enteroviruses, parechoviruses, other coronaviruses, adenoviruses, parainfluenza viruses or rhinoviruses. Yes, it will cost to install air cleaning, but the ongoing consequences of not doing anything will likely cost more.

Are we unable to talk about how crap rapid antigen testing can be when used to catch cases early? Of course, it’s wonderful that we have this test at our fingertips and at scale.

But most of the variety of kits we can buy haven’t been independently evaluated, and some we have access to are utter failures. Of course, we already know they all struggle early on in infection – at precisely the time when a negative result mentally frees us to paracetamol up and head off to work or school, shedding all the way. And early in the disease is also when antivirals are most effective.

What about some time spent explaining to the public why those who are vaccinated are still dying?

There are plenty of idiots using that echoing silence as a bullhorn to say – absurdly – that it’s because vaccines are bad. Aren’t we still trying to encourage a third of Australia to have a third dose, let alone a fourth? Walking away from communication at a time like this is abdicating all responsibility entirely and won’t help achieve that goal.

Why did our rapid vaccine development stop? What are our expectations of next-generation vaccines?

How did nothing come of the phrase “a new normal”? Instead, we sprinted away from all precautions as soon as things looked easy – the old normal.

Why are the most successful communicators now those with nothing but anti-vaccination, anti-mask, angry, conspiracy-filled, profit-driven agendas?

Is adult education and access to our own data now solely in the hands of reporters writing stories with quotes from a small pool of “experts”? Because if so, that’s not enough.

How did we learn so little from failings due to poor, confusing, insincere and politically influenced communication on every aspect of the pandemic during 2020?

Whatever happened to communication? What the hell are we doing?

Dr Ian M. Mackay is a scientist and an adjunct Associate Professor (University of Queensland), with a PhD in virology. This article was first published at his blog, Virology Down Under, which is not affiliated with any organisation and contains cited facts and some personal opinions.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on health communication