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Are Australians Incapable of Social Distancing?

Australians have been told by their governments that they have to practice social distancing, however many of them are deciding to disregard these instructions. People have been told not to undertake non-essential travel, to stay away from schools unless it is imperative for children to attend, to not cross some state borders and to avoid social gatherings. If there is a gathering then people should remain 1.5 metres apart.

However people are still moving around for non-essential travel. There are reports that many families are intending to move around during school holidays and people are still gathering informally at places like beaches and other recreational areas. People are crowding together at things like house auctions. There are also instances of grandparents who refuse to give up contact with their grandchildren.

There are requirements that people returning from overseas are required to self-isolate, however Flow is aware of people who have returned from overseas and have stopped off at home for a night before moving on to another venue to isolate.

These actions will cause the disease to spread quickly and precipitate a European style crisis.

The non-compliance can be partly attributed to a group’s sense of risk. During the H1N1 crisis (swine flu) in Australia, despite intense media interest, compliance with self-isolation measures worsened once swine flu was deemed a pandemic.

When this happened, Australians perceived the flu as having relatively mild symptoms, and this lowered the perception of individual risk. People became less afraid, and less compliant.

The swine flu also highlighted differences between social groups in relation to compliance.

Researchers found that across a number of countries, older, more educated and socially advantaged people were more likely to comply with recommended behaviours. Those who were younger, with lower levels of education were less likely.

Interestingly this does not seem to be the case with the current pandemic where non-compliance seems to occur across all social groups.

In Australia the consequences of getting Covid 19 are, in most cases, a very mild illness. There are 2043 reported cases and only 20 are in intensive care. Young people, in particular, are reported to not feel ill. This makes it difficult to perceive the risk, especially to other people.

It is likely, in the circumstances, that the National Cabinet will introduce more drastic measures that will be announced this week. This could include the closure of more non-essential servces which will add to the unemployment queues. This reveals that there is an indirect to risk to people ignoring the social distancing rules: they end up out of work.

It is also likely that there will be more coercive force used to enforce social distancing. This applies particularly to non-essential travel. This is a measure that gets the message through without substantial economic cost. If people start getting fined because they are out on a social trip then they will start to take the whole matter seriously.

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