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What does the coronavirus pandemic mean for Australians?


Details on the pandemic classification and the current coronavirus situation in Australia.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic for the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

So, what does "pandemic" mean? The WHO has previously defined a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease", in relation to the previous swine flu (H1N1) pandemic in 2009-10.

The COVID-19 outbreak is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. But the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also said that this classification "does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by this virus".

"It doesn't change what WHO is doing, and it doesn't change what countries should do," he said in a media briefing on 11 March 2020.

What will the pandemic classification mean in Australia?

At this stage, there shouldn't be too much change to the current approach that's being taken in Australia to help manage the virus.

This is because the Australian government decided to treat the outbreak as a pandemic last month, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the implementation of the Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan on 27 February 2020. Another contributing factor is that COVID-19 has been known as a worldwide threat since January 2020.

What's important to remember right now is that the WHO, along with governments around the world, have already put plans in place to help protect people. Businesses are also releasing updated policies and approaches to the outbreak.

How is a pandemic different to an epidemic?

A pandemic refers to the worldwide spread of a disease, while an epidemic is an infectious disease outbreak that is typically within one country or geographic area. In basic terms, an epidemic is more isolated, while a pandemic occurs on a global scale.

In either case, the impact can be serious for those affected. But, as the NSW Department of Health has noted in regards to the coronavirus:

"Healthcare systems can limit the impact on a community by slowing the spread of the infection between people and increasing the ability of the healthcare system to look after people who do get sick."

How to stay safe during the coronavirus outbreak

The WHO has outlined a number of recommendations to help protect yourself and others, including:

  • Wash your hands often. Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water helps kill the virus. If you don't have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand rub or hand sanitiser.
  • Avoid touching your face. Our hands touch many different surfaces, which means they could pick up the virus from an exposed surface. If that happens, touching your eyes, nose or mouth could increase the risk of the virus entering your body.
  • Practice social distancing. Where possible, keep at least 1 metre between you and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. This helps stop small droplets from spraying on people or surfaces. If you use a tissue, remember to put it in a bin and wash your hands as soon as possible.
  • Seek medical care if you have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Stay home and call the Coronavirus Health Information line on 1800 020 080 or call the healthdirect hotline on 1800 022 222 to speak to a registered nurse. They will be able to make an initial assessment and advise you on what to do next. Check this list for other hotlines and contact details in states and territories around Australia.
  • Stay informed. Check the Australian Department of Health website or other official sources, rather than relying on news or social media. Your workplace, schools, gyms and other public places you frequent may also have specific guidelines in regards to COVID-19.

For further details, visit the World Health Organisation website.

How is the pandemic affecting other areas of life?

Beyond health concerns, some of the biggest impacts related to the coronavirus include:

  • Travel and travel insurance

    If you have travel plans or still want to go away, you may be able to make changes to your dates or destinations as many travel companies have updated their policies in light of the coronavirus outbreak. It's also worth checking out whether you're covered by travel insurance, as most insurers won't cover you for a known event. If you do decide to travel, make sure you pack the essentials to help stay safe.

  • Cancelled events

    Already, a number of major events have been cancelled – including Dark Mofo in Tasmania and the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne. You can read about the list of sports events that have been cancelled, relocated or postponed. To help minimise the spread of COVID-19, restrictions may be placed on public events and gatherings over a certain size. Check the Department of Health website for the latest alerts and advice.

  • Economic impact

    With international trade restrictions and global concern around the coronavirus pandemic, the economy has taken a huge hit – both in Australia and overseas. To help manage this, the government announced a stimulus package that includes a $750 payment to pensioners and other people receiving benefits, as well as support for businesses.

  • Investments and superannuation

    While there are many contributing factors, it is worth noting that the coronavirus outbreak has been a major influence on the latest stock market crash. If you have investments, this is something to consider carefully before deciding what to do. It is also worth looking at the potential effect it could have on your superannuation – although there shouldn't be too much of an impact in the long term for a well-diversified portfolio.

  • Panic buying

    Fear and uncertainty have driven many people to stockpile toilet paper and other everyday items. This type of panic buying can put certain groups of people at a disadvantage and lead to stock problems or higher prices. Supermarkets have now put limits on staples, including rice and toilet paper, advising people to only buy what they need. Remember: if you need toilet paper and can't find any in a shop, you could also try looking online.

As this situation is being updated frequently, many other changes could occur. While there are lots of unknowns, the WHO has said the situation could improve if countries act now.

"We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic," Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his media briefing on 11 March 2020.

"If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission. Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus."

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