COVID-19 will change more than our health

Mask and hand sanitizer




By Peter Gill

As Australia, and the world, strives to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the efforts to minimise infections are changing our social relationships. As such, and in the absence of a viable vaccine in the short term, the response to COVID-19 will define our future workplaces and have significant implications for innovation, productivity and economic growth.

And, according to Professor Michael Kidd AM, Deputy Chief Medical Officer in the Commonwealth Department of Health and Professor of Primary Care Reform at The Australian National University, the world will not automatically revert to ‘normal’ if, and when, an effective vaccine is developed.

As someone at the heart of the fight against COVID-19, Professor Kidd has the knowledge and numbers that should dispel the complacency which seems to be widespread in some quarters of the community.

In a recent interview with SACES’s Economic Policy Forum, Professor Kidd said the social isolation that is central to curbing the spread of the virus has implications for both the short- and long-term nature of workplace, and society more generally.

Professor Kidd suggests that complacency within the community – the starkest example of which was the revelation that a quarter of people in Victoria who had tested positive and should have been self-isolating were not at home when the authorities visited – perhaps stems from the fact that the first wave of infections was linked to people entering Australia or returning after international travel, including on cruise ships.

“I think after the first wave and the end of that initial nationwide lockdown, many people thought ‘that’s it – this is over, we can get on with our lives’,” Professor Kidd said.

Professor Kidd said there were also concerns about the apparent complacency amongst younger people “some of whom feel COVID-19 is not a risk to them”.

“Unfortunately, it is a risk and we’ve had two deaths recently of people in their 30s and we’ve had people in their teens and twenties who have been very unwell with COVID-19. So, anyone can get really sick with COVID-19. What we can’t predict at this time is who, so we have got to be protecting everybody.”

Professor Kidd said while the virus was most infectious and primarily spread through droplets from an infected person sneezing or coughing on other people or surfaces, recent research has also strengthened our knowledge about the risk that it could spread through an aerosol effect from a person’s breath, especially in enclosed spaces. Asymptomatic transmission is also an important source of infection.

Professor Kidd says the idea of ‘herd immunity’ – where people could get infected, get over it and subsequently have immunity to future infection – “is not nearly as simple as we thought”.

“It seems that some people who appear to have a mild case of COVID-19 can still have post-viral effects causing fatigue and other symptoms. And we don’t know how long immunity lasts, so it may be that some people develop long-lasting immunity but it may be that for other people their immunity may not last very long at all, and they may be at risk of re-infection, as we have now seen in a small number of cases overseas.”

For the moment, the isolation of infected people, physical distancing, good hand hygiene, extensive testing, and the wearing of masks all remain front-line responses to the virus.

Professor Kidd says: “These are things that we are now taking for granted which would have seemed impossible in Australia eight months ago.”

“So, things have changed dramatically, including in our workplaces. Who thought we could have had so many people working from home rather than going into an office each day? Essential services are still in their workplaces but a lot of people who previously occupied office tower blocks in the central business districts of our major cities are now working from home.

“It seems that many people are still very productive by doing so, a lot of which is thanks to the technology that we now have available to us.

“But there are a few things that worry me about this scenario. I find that teleconferences and video conferences work well with people with whom you have an established working relationship but they work less well with people you don’t know.

“I worry for people coming into the workforce and people who are changing jobs about how are they going to build the relationships with their colleagues which are so fundamental to the way we work.

“Also, a lot of productivity and innovation occurs in workplaces where people come together, a good example of which are our universities.

“So, I think we need to come to some sort of happy balance about what we are doing because human beings are social beings and we are not used to being totally on our own. We are used to getting together with significant numbers of other people.

“Having said that though, one of the features of past epidemics and pandemics is that you do get great innovation occurring when people are in isolation – you get great works of art, music and literature, and amazing discoveries.

“I think we have already seen that in relation to some of the science that has already occurred. The rapid work on vaccines worldwide has been extraordinary but we have also seen huge leaps forward in many public health measures, in the way we deliver health care with the use of telehealth, and with people using social media and new technologies in all sorts of different ways.”

In relation to a vaccine, Professor Kidd said “the pace that a number of these promising solutions are moving through the different phases in the development process is really impressive and very heartening”.

“However, you can’t predict how long it is going to take before the first one of these gets to a point where its proven to be safe and effective and providing long-lasting protection to the majority of people.

“A vaccine also needs to be a product that can be developed en masse for seven billion people because there is no point just having a vaccine for Australia - we need a vaccine that is going to be distributed to people all around the world if we are going to be able to reopen our borders and move to whatever ‘new normal’ life looks like.

“It’s likely we will never again be living like we were in 2019 – some of the changes are going to be with us in the future and some of the very rapid technological developments that we have seen are here to stay. And that’s exciting.”

Background: Professor Kidd was previously Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University for eight years and, more recently, spent three years as Chair of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, Canada. He returned to Australia in March 2020 to take up the dual roles of Deputy Chief Medical Officer in the Commonwealth Department of Health and Professor of Primary Care Reform at The Australian National University. Amongst a range of professional appointments, Professor Kidd has previously served as the elected President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (2002-2006) and President of the World Organization of Family Doctors (2013-2016).

To receive updates when articles are posted to the SACES Economic Policy Forum, please sign up for email updates through the front page or follow us on Twitter

Tagged in Commentary, COVID-19