Should social distancing stay or go once Australia is on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic? (ABC Radio Adelaide: Spence Denny)
In response to the global coronavirus health crisis, Australians have adapted to more rigorous hygiene routines, are working from home and keeping their distance from others — but should social distancing become permanent?
- The Public Health Association of Australia wants some social distancing measures to stay
- The group’s executive said future infrastructure could be built to adhere to new rules
- But an epidemiologist says the measures will not be required once COVID-19 is controlled
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Terry Slevin said it would be a mistake if some of the response measures and social changes were not kept in place beyond the pandemic.
Professor Slevin has watched with interest as strict social distancing moves — such as limits on the number of people in shops and supermarkets, and enforced distancing in queues outside cafes — have helped halt the spread of COVID-19.
He said while there was a strong incentive to go back to how things were once it was safe to do so, many of the steps were worth keeping.
“There are things that we will all have learned out of this experience and I think it’s important we give thought to how we can sustain those changes,” Professor Slevin said.
“We’re seeing more use of hand sanitisers, being conscious about keeping distance from people in a range of settings, and there are likely benefits to be had if we find ways of continuing to do that.
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Terry Slevin. (ABC Local: Rebecca Brewin)
“I think this will be a world-changing experience, I think there will be a whole range of things that will be different.
“The post-COVID [world] will very much be focused on avoiding or being able to deal with those kind of viral infections in the future in a better way.”
Professor Slevin said the negative consequences of social distancing did not mean there had not been benefits which needed to be embraced on the “other side” of the pandemic.
He predicted improved personal hygiene would become much more widespread, as people better understood the risks, and cited working from home as another obvious example.
“I wonder when all of this is over, whether this flexibility has had extra benefits and there wasn’t such an enormous impact on productivity,” he said.
Could mosh pits become a thing of the past?
Coronavirus has killed more than 150,000 people around the globe, but it is also thought to have cost millions of workers their jobs.
Professor Slevin acknowledged while social restrictions have had substantial impacts, he said it was time for a rethink on the way social gatherings were organised.
“As we build new cinemas, as we build new sporting stadiums, do we design in a change so there’s greater space?” he said.
“There’s always going to be the economic argument of getting as many into those venues as possible.”
However, he said the economic imperative would not allow for permanent changes on all fronts.
“Anybody who is selling seats and their income is reliant on that, will still want to have every seat occupied, whether it’s at a football game or an aeroplane or in the cinema,” he said.
“[But] will we be having those heavily dense mosh pits [at music events]? Is that a sensible thing we continue with?
“Will there be a greater expectation of keeping distance from people in a whole range of settings?”
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Social distancing ‘not needed’ when pandemic abates
University of South Australia epidemiologist Adrian Esterman takes a different view.
While he is sceptical that a vaccine can be quickly found and believes COVID-19 could come back every year, he said that life would return to normal once Australia emerged from the health scare.
“If the supermarkets want to have disinfectant wipes for their trolleys that’s always a good idea because there’s plenty of other bugs out there,” Professor Esterman said.
“But the social distancing measures themselves I don’t think are needed once we get over this.”
South Australia recorded no new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours with a recovery rate of 91 per cent across the state.
However, Professor Esterman agreed that, regardless of how much longer social distancing remains in place, there had been at least one major benefit.
“Now we’ll be much better prepared when the next pandemic hits us,” he said.
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