🦘 Australia, meet Coronavirus
It’s 2020. Unemployment is relatively low, the Australian economy is (sluggishly) ticking by, and people are blissfully miming along to songs on a dumb app, or going about their daily business wondering what the hell a TikTok is.
Or at least they were, up until a few weeks ago.
Coronavirus first piqued our interest at the start of the year. Then it really grabbed our attention.
Now, it has indelibly changed our lives, and will continue to do so for some time.
With so many questions, rumours, factoids, and fear flying around, we decided it was time to put everything you need to know about Coronavirus in Australia in one handy place, minus the bullshit.
🤷♂️ What even is a virus anyway?
Let’s start by quickly looking at other different types of infection for a minute. Infections can affect humans in lots of ways, from unnoticeably mild to deadly symptoms, depending on what they are.
Viruses are extremely sneaky in this regard, especially when compared with bacterial and fungal infections, which operate very differently.
A virus consists of genetic material (like DNA), a coating of protein, and a layer of lipids (fat). This allows it to attach itself to healthy cells. Once attached, a virus uses the healthy cell’s machinery and metabolism to multiply, while the host-cell suffers.
Once the freshly produced viruses are ready, they start to exit one at a time to infect other cells. Often though, it's too much for the host cell, which explodes, releasing all the new viral particles into the rest of your body.
Okay, so what’s so special about a “coronavirus”?
Coronaviruses comprise a large family of viral infections that can cause illnesses in humans and in some animals. The name ‘corona’ comes from how it looks under a microscope.
A coronavirus can spread from animals to humans, triggering severe illnesses in its human hosts. We’ll touch more on this below, but in essence, this is what has happened here, hence our general lack of preparedness in terms of not having a vaccination.
When you read about “coronavirus” today, you’re reading about COVID-19 (which is short for Coronavirus Disease - 2019). COVID-19 is a new strain of ‘novel’ coronavirus (which means new).
It can cause severe respiratory illness in extreme cases.
🦇 It started with a bat (we think)
The first cases...
On the last day of 2019, officials at the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) China office heard whispers of a new virus coming out of Wuhan, an eastern Chinese city with over 11 million people.
These first few cases, which drew a global eye, were noted for the fact they were causing pneumonia (lung infection), and that the virus was new.
A trilogy of coronaviruses in ~15 years
The truth is, while COVID-19 looks to be 96 per cent similar to the coronavirus that is found in bats (which is also thought to be the cause of the 2002-’03 SARS epidemic), it likely mutated through another animal first, which is why it is so serious in humans.
In 2002, we saw a bat coronavirus transmute into SARS via a civet cat.
In 2012, we saw a bat coronavirus transmute into MERS via a camel.
Today, we’re most likely experiencing the outcome of a bat coronavirus transmuting to COVID-19 via a pangolin, which is a scaly Chinese anteater of sorts.
🤝 How contagious is it?
Short answer: decently contagious
COVID-19 is a viral infection, meaning unlike bacteria, it doesn’t have cells. It therefore requires a host (in this case a human) to spread. Spreading occurs via human-to-human contact via droplets spread by coughing and sneezing.
Viruses need a mucous membrane to ensconce themselves in a host (like those found in the nose and mouth). While it’s true that they can also be passed on through open sores or cuts, this is less likely with a condition such as coronavirus as it directly affects the respiratory system.
It can also be spread by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects, though it’s important to note that, according to the WHO, it is not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces.
This is why regularly and thoroughly washing your hands is so important.
Person to person spread
If we are to assume that it behaves like other coronaviruses, however (which is what the evidence we do have suggests), COVID-19 may persist on some surfaces for a matter of hours or even days, depending on the surface and external factors such as temperature and humidity.
Even in the air, however, it seems that COVID-19 can exist for up to three hours and, for extra levels of grossness (and reason to avoid like, well, the plague), it looks like it can be spread via fecal matter.
That’s right. You can get it by breathing an infected fart.
The best tool for monitoring the global spread of this coronavirus pandemic is this one, from John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
🦠 Are we all going to die?
Pandemics are pretty scary in movies. They're even scarier on Twitter.
Panic spreads like a virus, too
Discounting the GFC, this is the first global crisis in a post-Facebook world. The 24-hour news cycle is addictive, and the result is that it's easier than ever for widespread panic and misinformation to become rife amongst the world's population.
But we are very lucky today in that we have a lot more knowledge than we did back in, say, 541 AD, when the Plague of Justinian wiped out half of Europe’s population.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1957’s Asian Flu have been mentioned lots in recent weeks. The coronavirus sits somewhere in between those pandemics, in terms of mortality and contagiousness.
But no, we are not all going to die, if we can defeat the virus.
🏆 Defeating the virus
How viruses spread ... is also their weakness
A virus needs to attach to healthy host cells. By removing a prevalence of healthy host cells (i.e. people interacting with each other), we essentially remove its ability to spread.
And by regularly washing our hands, we break the fats inside the virus and remove it from our skin before it can come into contact with our mouths and noses.
This is why you are constantly being told to thoroughly wash your hands; it’s not just a generic public health message to make you feel like you’re doing something.
A bar of Solvol and running water are two of the greatest weapons in our collective arsenal against this bloody thing.
😨 What if I get it?
In short, the odds are vastly in your favour.
While the mortality rate is reasonably low (at least with what we know so far), that’s not what is worrying about COVID-19.
What is more concerning is the rapid rate at which it spreads. While only a low percentage of people who contract it will also need hospitalising, this becomes a very large actual figure when larger numbers of people are infected at the same time.
This pushes hospitals to the limit in terms of the care they can provide.
If you have COVID-19 you will likely present with symptoms including:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Other flu-like symptoms
The percentage of infected people who require hospital care is about five per cent, with that number increasing exponentially the older a patient is, becoming much higher after 70.
🧪 How will I know if I’m infected?
The only way to know for sure if you’ve got a case of the ‘rona is to have a test, though this is not necessary for everybody.
Most people who have coronavirus don’t and might not ever know if they have/had it. This is largely due to the fact that there is still little information about how and when the precise symptoms show.
It is still thought that many young, healthy hosts are asymptomatic, meaning they could be walking around infectious for days on end without any idea that they are carrying COVID-19.
This is one of the reasons we all need to take it so seriously.
COVID-19 tests are in dangerously short supply the whole world over. This means that just because you think you need to be tested, or would like to be tested (just to be safe), it might not be possible.
If you arrive at a testing facility you will see all staff in personal protective equipment (like in the movies). To determine whether you qualify, you will be interviewed by a triage nurse who will ask you three questions.
You will only be swabbed if you are displaying symptoms AND:
- You have been overseas in the past 14 days or;
- You have been in CLOSE contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the last 14 days or;
- You are a health care worker.
What’s “close contact” mean?
Close-contact is having spent a significant time within a small distance from somebody who is confirmed, like sitting next to them all day every day in an office, or sharing a bed with your partner.
If you’ve just attended a music festival where one person got sick, you won’t qualify for a test.
If you do not have symptoms, or do not meet any of those three criteria, you won’t be swabbed, as there simply aren't enough swabs to go around (yes, this means don't bother going, you'll be safer staying home away from the queue of sneezing people anyway).
If you do have any cold or flu symptoms but don’t meet those three criteria, you will still need to self-isolate for 14 days.
If you DO meet the criteria you will be given a face mask and asked to wait in line to be swabbed. If this happens, you MUST self-isolate until your test results are returned (currently around three days).
You’re also not allowed to travel home from the clinic on any public transport, including taxis and ubers, so be prepared for a long walk if you haven’t arranged a lift with a friend (preferably one with a face mask and hand-sanitiser in the glovebox).
🎬 What can I do?
There is every chance that in the coming days (and hopefully not weeks), we will have some version of a forced isolation, that sees us all locked inside with infection numbers eventually dipping to a manageable point.
Until then, while it is up to us as individuals to make these decisions, it is imperative that we heed the warning of doctors, especially those on the front line, and reduce the spread.
Watch YouTube. Watch Netflix. Read a book. Read several books. Hell, WRITE a book.
Learn a new language. Take up gardening. Make a cake.
Try new recipes, brew your own beer, clean the house, do all the laundry, feng shui your furniture, do some solo yoga, sing in the shower, play with your pets, paint a painting, practice an instrument, put up that shelf, fix that squeak, do a jigsaw puzzle, play board games—we could suggest a hundred more.
Please remember, there is so much good that can come from a couple of weeks at home, especially when the alternative is so, so bad.
👨🏭 I’m worried about my job
Every single industry will be affected by this outbreak, and there is no escaping the economic devastation it will certainly cause. Many in the banking sector are already accepting that it is going to be worse than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and nobody is safe.
But therein also lies the hope: we are all in this together.
Unless you work in healthcare, or own a dunny roll factory, the chances of escaping this pandemic without a financial knock are very slim, but governments the world over are already putting measure in place to ensure that we can all go on living.
Some of the measures we might see announced in Australia include:
- A government payment to individuals who cannot work due to the coronavirus, including those in the hospitality and tourism sector (similarly to the UK).
- An amnesty on rent and mortgage repayments (we are already seeing laws in the UK that would make evicting anybody for the next three months out of the question).
- Cash injections to small businesses to keep the lights on (figuratively) while trade is low or has ceased.
- A raise in Newstart to assist lower-income households with increased prices due to consumer demand.
If you’re already facing unemployment, check out our unemployment guide here, but most importantly, remember you are not alone.
Coronavirus affects us all, but there is comfort in the fact that everybody will be hurting for a while, and it will be up to us all to rebuild and recover when the time comes.
🚪 What is self-isolation?
Sounds kinda self-explanatory, right? But self-isolation is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a viral infection. If you, or somebody with whom you have been in direct contact, has been officially diagnosed with COVID-19, it is super important that you self-isolate for 14 days to ensure that you don’t infect anybody else.
The Australian Government is so serious about stopping the spread that self-isolation is also now enforceable by law if you have travelled overseas, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or have been asked to self-isolate by a health authority due to a suspected case.
So I can’t leave the house … for anything?
Correct: if you are in forced isolation you can’t leave your residence for anything, including a trip to the shops or even a walk in the park. A few simple lifestyle changes are in order to guarantee a fast and successful recovery, or time spent indoors that won’t have you going completely bonkers.
What is very important to note is that distancing interventions like these won’t show tangible results for one to three weeks. Any new infections discovered in the next ten or so days were already existing.
This means that a surge in cases right now would not be a fair indicator that social distancing measures aren't working.
🙄 My mate’s reckon we’re overreacting
Going from business as usual to dropping everything to stay indoors in the space of a week might seem extreme. It is.
It’s also very easy to get upset with the hysteria whipped up by the media right now, especially when it gets in the way of your plans.
But it is important.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about coronavirus is that we still don’t have loads of information.
Going on the information we do have, it’s probably going to be okay for the most of us. But for a few, it can and will be devastating, and those few could easily be people in your own friendship circles, or even family.
The mortality rate isn’t terrifyingly high, and the symptoms are, for most, manageable. Like 95 per cent of the population, you probably won’t even need to be admitted to a hospital if you were to contract it.
But it’s not about you.
The vulnerable in society (i.e immunosuppressed people including the elderly and those on chemotherapy) are most at risk here, and it’s important that we keep our hospitals at or below capacity to provide the proper care and support to these patients.
Even though you might be “fine” coming down with a case of coronavirus, with mild symptoms for a few days then back to the office, this just isn’t safe, especially with so much still unknown about how COVID-19 spreads.
📉 What is “flattening the curve”?
Worldwide, doctors are currently encouraging everybody to “flatten the curve”. This means slowing down the rate of infection drastically, so that emergency services and health workers aren’t swamped with a litany of cases all at once.
By taking extra precautions, individuals can essentially guarantee a slower, more drawn out pandemic that is far more manageable than a huge outbreak that could leave millions around the world without proper care
In real terms, this means social distancing, isolating where possible, regularly washing hands and avoiding human contact.
📰 The other “stop the spread”
Unfortunately at times like this, it’s not just a nasty virus that can be shared. The other thing that has a tendency to spread like wildfire is misinformation.
“I heard that <insert wild rumour here>” and “somebody told me <bullshit, bullshit, bullshit>” is seriously unhelpful at a time when the information we do have is a precious commodity.
As such, it’s incredibly important that you don’t fall victim to rumour and hearsay.
Make sure any information you read, or share with anybody, whether on social media or in person, comes from a reliable news outlet, government department, or with the relevant tick of approval by a registered doctor.
Misinformation can do a great deal of harm during a global pandemic, but unlike a virus, it doesn’t just spread from person to person without a deliberate action. We are all responsible for this.
🤭 Why self-isolate?
Not to sound like a broken record, but we will say it again: self-isolation is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a viral infection. If you or somebody with whom you have been in direct contact has been officially diagnosed with COVID-19, it is imperative that you self-isolate for 14 days to ensure that you don’t infect anybody else.
Here are the five main reasons to self-isolate:
- You're a vulnerable (immunosuppressed) person.
- You just don't want to get the disease (sounds obvious, but this could be a matter of weighing up risk and probabilities if, for example, you are a healthy casual worker).
- You've returned from overseas and it's mandatory.
- You have a suspected or a confirmed infection.
- You have had contact with a COVID-19 infected person.
🙅 WTF is “social distancing”?
Social distancing is different to self-isolation in that it means you can still leave the house, though with a few precautions in place to stop the spread. This is something that is being heavily recommended around the world right now, for everybody’s sake.
Ways you can socially distance include:
- Keeping a 1.5 metre distance from other people where possible;
- Avoiding public transport;
- Avoiding unnecessary events and gatherings;
- Avoid shaking hands;
- Conducting meetings via conference call (or just turning them into an email like you probably could have done in the first place).
It is also recommended that a few extra precautions are taken when out and about (if you must be out in the first place) to help slow the infection rate of COVID-19. These include:
- Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly;
- Sneezing or coughing into your elbow/hand (if you must) THEN washing thoroughly with soap and water;
- Regularly using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser;
- Avoiding sharing food.
The Australian Government made this handy resource if you’re still unsure, and remember, with anything like this, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
🧐 I want more info
This website here has been set up by volunteers to track the infection rate and distribution of COVID-19 in Australia in easy-to-read graphs that are regularly updated.
And here’s a list of the government information pages for each state:
South Australia: https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/novelcoronavirus
Western Australia: https://ww2.health.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Coronavirus
Northern Territory: https://securent.nt.gov.au/alerts/coronavirus-covid-19-updates
ACT: https://health.act.gov.au/about-our-health-system/novel-coronavirus-covid-19Tasmania: https://www.dhhs.tas.gov.au/publichealth/communicable_diseases_prevention_unit/infectious_diseases/coronavirus