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Pandemics and public health

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 15 September 2020


Firstly, an epidemiological dimension consisting of cases and deaths. Secondly, a psycho-social dimension involving human reaction and response.

Unfortunately our Governments tend to devote themselves to issues involving cases and deaths and show little concern or understanding for how people consider risk in their lives. Ironically, outpourings of fear, hysteria and panic can totally overwhelm the number of cases and deaths.

There is little doubt that the State and Commonwealth governments remain silent on how fear, hysteria and public panic might be managed. Our experience of SARS, smallpox, plague and influenza indicate to what extent such things can influence and disrupt normal life.

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What we really need to fully understand is how ordinary people evaluate risk and handle fear in their lives and how many of the pandemic policies advanced by our governments regarding quarantine, lockdown, closures and travel restrictions actually serve to heighten our fear and anxiety.

All this encourages a deep scepticism among most of us as to whether we can have any confidence in our governments claim that they can actually protect us. Given this it is small wonder that public confidence in our government during times of pandemic crises remains at a low point.

Plague or pandemic fear may indeed be one of our most basic fears deeply entrenched in our psyche and representing an amalgamation of rational and irrational fears about contagion, infection, risk and exposure. It remains doubtful whether governments and their medical advisors fully appreciate this.

The media continues to play an important role in all of this as well. The desire to sensationalise and to play on ordinary people’s emotions often becomes overwhelming and undoubtedly influences how we see and respond to pandemic outbreaks.

 Public health is one of the basic props upon which Australia’s national security rests. Without a fearless, healthy and secure population Australia cannot prosper, expand its economy and maintain the health and wellbeing of all its citizens.

There seems little doubt that Australia will continue to experience major outbreaks of infectious disease over the next 25 years. Understanding and managing such outbreaks with specific reference to the psycho-social and behavioural side of such outbreaks would seem critical to implementing successful response and containment plans.

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There is little doubt that people continue to harbour deep-seated fears about infectious disease and such fear is not related to science or empirical evidence but more shaped by personal attitudes and the way we see the world around us.

 It is clear that outbreaks of infectious disease can no longer be simply seen as the preserve of our government and their medical advisors. Pandemics of infectious disease involve all aspects of our lives and the sooner governments realise and plan for this the better off we will all be.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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