Supply chain problems and lack of tests have damaged confidence in government policies but responsiveness can go a long way
Last modified on Wed 19 Jan 2022 00.39 EST
The Omicron surge marks a new phase of the pandemic. After months of restrictions and stay-at-home orders, Australians are now facing food shortages from damaged supply chains, widespread staff shortages and an insufficient supply of Covid tests.
Reduced government support has prompted concerns that Omicron will have more harmful effects than the country’s lengthy lockdowns. Our research on experiences of the pandemic in Australia and the United States reveals government support is important not just in terms of providing resources but also in terms of delivering reliable information.
Without it, Australians are managing more risks on their own – something Americans have had to do throughout the pandemic.
Looking at the US example provides important insights for getting Australia’s pandemic response back on track.
Our new Australian National University report documents how a diverse group of Australian residents have accessed information and resources over the course of the pandemic. They, for the most part, reflect positively on their access to Covid-related information, public services and technologies.
Even when experiencing economic or social hardships during 2020 and 2021, study participants reported high levels of compliance and confidence in their ability to adapt to the changing circumstances of the pandemic. Despite spending the highest number of days in lockdown globally, Victorians generally expressed support for those measures. They often reflected on how outcomes at home were better than in Europe and the United States, which had looser regulations and higher rates of infection and hospitalisations.
However, attitudes began to shift in 2021 with the return of lockdowns and the introduction of vaccination targets. Some participants disclosed having compliance fatigue and more polarised views on vaccine mandates and other pandemic responses.
The spread of Omicron threatens to exacerbate these issues as existing pandemic strategies are no longer working for many Australians.
Confusing rules and a lack of resources undermine people’s capacity to navigate the current crisis. For example, the shortage of rapid antigen tests undermines the ability of individuals and businesses to make the informed decisions necessary to take “personal responsibility” as promoted by the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet.
With inadequate support and messaging, Australians face difficult situations that require making complex risk assessments. The situation is similar to US findings that show how Americans have struggled to manage various risks throughout the pandemic.
The wide range of communications and risk mitigation measures across US states and municipalities has fostered scepticism about government information and policy interventions. Many participants have reported receiving conflicting information, which, as earlier studies show, can reduce trust in credible sources.
As a result, they have re-evaluated and questioned risk information, concerned that official guidance might be inaccurate or inappropriate for their personal situation.
Many US participants also felt government advice failed to account for the diverse risks posed by the pandemic.
In addition to fears about Covid-related illness, they worried about getting treatment for other health issues, losing work, declining behavioural well-being and the erosion of institutions that support healthcare, education, democracy and the arts. They desired a balance of information about all of these risks, not just about Covid-19 infection.
These factors contributed to participants searching widely for relevant information, leaning heavily on social media and personal networks. While these sources can provide important contextual information, relying on them creates opportunities for the proliferation of misinformation in the ongoing “infodemic” that has swirled around the pandemic.
Consistent messaging and trust are foundational for effective public health strategies. Throughout 2020 and 2021, most Australians – though notably not all – could access reliable pandemic-related information and resources. This helped them develop informed risk management practises, even during difficult times.
With skyrocketing Omicron cases, it is essential for leaders to return to these core regulatory principles, bringing credible experts on board to recalibrate responses and to address public concerns.
Where strategies have failed, leveraging and resourcing key actors in trusted local information networks, such as community organisations and dependable service providers, can aid in building confidence in communities. Addressing supply issues won’t happen immediately, but being responsive in critical times can go a long way in the interim.
Kathryn Henne, Aleks Deejay and Franz Carnerio Alphonse are researchers in RegNet, the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University. Kathleen H Pine is a faculty member in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, where Kathryn Henne is also an adjunct professor