Massive rises in COVID cases and deaths in Australia could be averted with smart public health messaging.
Every day there is more and more medical evidence coming to light of the long-term effects of COVID infection. There now appears to be a distinction between long COVID and the sort of longer-term complications such as heart disease – they may actually be two different phenomena.
Long COVID is really just continuing symptoms after you’ve had an acute COVID phase. But there is now a whole bunch of people who did recover, don’t have long COVID, are feeling perfectly well, but may now have a greater risk of stroke, heart attack or brain problems.
There is now a recommendation from the American Heart Association that anyone who’s had any COVID infection have regular heart checks because of that increased risk. Who in the general public knows that? Virtually no one. It is looking very dire and it makes me very angry.
I’m very concerned that people think the COVID-19 pandemic is over. And I’m concerned with what that means for public health in Australia and across the world.
I’ve always been interested in health and medical issues. I was fascinated by human biology from an early age but knew I could never be a medical doctor because I’m very squeamish – I don’t love the sight of blood. But there’s a whole area of social research called the sociology of medicine, science and technology.
I actually did a year of human biology at university but then converted that to biological anthropology, which looks at how biology comes together with behaviour and with social processes. I have also been trained in epidemiology, biostatistics, health promotion and health economics from completing a Masters in Public Health.
I also have qualifications in health communication and media studies. My PhD was on how the Australian press reported HIV/AIDS. So I began there, but my research now covers any sort of infectious disease and pandemics, and many other health topics.
The race to produce an effective COVID-19 vaccination was a very positive thing for our view of science. I remember mid to late 2020, there were doubts about whether there would ever be an effective vaccine. There were people working on it, but there wasn’t a lot of hope – then bang, by the end of 2020, we had them. This was a fantastic outcome for vaccine science.
Since then, COVID-19-related science and public health have become such a political issue, and mostly for the worse. We’ve seen how libertarian vested interests have contributed to misinformation here in Australia, and in the UK and the USA even more so. We’ve seen how the right-wing media have tried to shape the public landscape of information with disinformation. I am just gobsmacked at how few journalists have actually looked at these political dimensions and drawn attention to them.
Then we had the politics in Australia come into it: not communicating well enough with the public about risks versus benefits of vaccination. My interview study with Australians about their COVID experiences in 2021 showed how policies like the roadmaps set out by the Premiers in each state were accepted – it was about meeting these targets of getting your two doses of vaccine recommended at the time to be able to get your freedom again. And people responded magnificently to that because it was very direct and simple to understand: get your two jabs and that’ll solve the problem and the pandemic will be over.
Our vaccination levels rose dramatically once they were available in Australia. In a matter of months, we became one of the most well-vaccinated populations in in the world.
But that’s all gone backwards now.
What’s happened since is Omicron. The vaccines didn’t cope well with the Omicron variant. After everyone went out and got their two jabs, we all started heaving a sigh of relief and thinking things would be much better, and the pandemic was controlled – and then we were overcome in late 2021. At the same time, most states were beginning to open up and the international borders were being loosened. It was unfortunate timing that Omicron came along: it was far more contagious.
By the summer of 2021, things had gone haywire, and we’ve since seen massive rises in cases and deaths.
Unfortunately, once those restrictions were loosened, it’s been like trying to get the genie back into the bottle. And it has turned out to be poor public health policy.
Restrictions were dropped too quickly. Public health messaging and news reporting has basically disappeared. We’ve had little public health messaging about the next available vaccines that we are now finally able to access. People now know that vaccination alone will not solve the problem. They’ve become very disillusioned.
The government needs to present a nuanced message to encourage people to get their third dose, let alone the fourth or fifth. There’s a lot of apathy out there. It’s so important that the message comes out about the long-term effects and potential neurological, organ and blood vessel damage that COVID infections can cause.
This important information is not being translated into news coverage.
Twitter is the one place where I can find other COVID-careful people and we can support each other and share information and not feel quite so alone. Because we certainly feel very alone in our everyday lives. Even in research-intensive universities such as mine, we hardly ever hear about COVID anymore. Few people think about any kind of COVID risk. It’s business as usual. At academic conferences these days, you’re often made to feel like you’re being neurotic if you wear a mask or enquire about air quality in a venue, like you’re paranoid or overly anxious.
As far as I know, I haven’t had COVID yet. And I’m trying to keep it that way because I do read the medical literature. There are important measures we should be taking to reduce the risk of transmission in all our social settings: respirator mask wearing and ensuring clean air in indoor spaces as well as continuing to encourage vaccination.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.
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Originally published by Cosmos as Next Big Thing: Communicating the next pandemic
Deborah Lupton is a SHARP Professor in the Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre and Leader of the Vitalities Lab at UNSW Sydney. She also leads the UNSW Node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society.