How should Australians prepare for a coronavirus pandemic?

A doctor in Wuhan, China earlier this month. Source: Getty

Australians are being urged to plan ahead for a possible coronavirus pandemic.

The Federal Government has activated its emergency response plan for dealing with a potential coronavirus pandemic.

The plan could see schools closed and Australians working from home.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Greg Hunt also suggested cancelling large events such as AFL matches "as a last resort".

But the government has only offered limited information on how Australians themselves can prepare for a possible pandemic.

SBS News looks at what you can do if the spread of COVID-19 worsens.

What can I do now?

With only 23 cases of coronavirus in Australia, University of New South Wales global biosecurity expert Raina MacIntyre said the risk of infection remains low.

"At this stage, when it's not widespread in the community, Australians should take reasonable measures to make sure they don't expose themselves to risk, mainly through travel," Professor MacIntyre told SBS News.

"Think carefully before travelling to Asia, check how many cases there are in whatever country you're planning to travel to and think about rescheduling travel plans."

Officials disinfect a market in Seoul on Wednesday.
Officials disinfect a market in Seoul on Wednesday.

Professor MacIntyre said Australians should reconsider cruises in Asia, for the time being.

"[And generally] avoid things that will damage your health, like smoking ... Because smoking damages your respiratory tracts and this is a respiratory virus."

She also said to "avoid misinformation" and only find out about the virus from reputable sources.

What can I do in the weeks ahead?

Ian Mackay, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Queensland, said Australians should consider stocking up on essentials as supply chains could be disrupted in a pandemic.

"We can start thinking over the next few weeks of buying a few extra things when we go to the supermarket, things like dried food, canned food and medication," he said.

"Just to make sure we've got a few things in a box, that we could mark 'pandemic stash', that will see us over for about two weeks just in case supplies are restricted or interrupted."

Minister for Health Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy on Wednesday.
Minister for Health Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy on Wednesday.

"We may see all sorts of interruptions for different reasons, not because the pandemic is a horrifying, terrible thing, but because people get sick and may be sick for a few weeks and we may see shelves empty out because they're not being refreshed as often as possible."

But Associate Professor Mackay urged Australians not to panic.

"We don't think clearly when we panic and we don't plan properly."

UNSW's Professor MacIntyre also said to keep an eye out for when the next flu vaccine is made available.

"Everyone should get the flu shot as soon as it's available because there were documented cases in China of people with both the infections simultaneously – flu and coronavirus."

What about vulnerable groups?

On Wednesday, Mr Hunt reiterated that the elderly are more at risk of coronavirus.

"Coronavirus, as with the flu, particularly affects the elderly and it affects them because their system can be weaker," he said.

Commuters in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Commuters in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Associate Professor Mackay said Australians should be aware of this and plan accordingly.

He said if you have elderly relatives in a residential aged care facility, "perhaps talk to that facility about what their plans are".

"If they are not in a facility, think about the medications they may need. Perhaps have a talk to their doctors about maybe stocking up a bit, so that interruptions to delivery don't affect them."

"It's a bit more scary but I think the reality is you can also think about whether they have a will and whether you, as a carer for them, have an enduring power of attorney, so you can help them with decisions about care in case they get pretty sick."

What would a pandemic look like?

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that that coronavirus has "pandemic potential" and all countries should make preparations.

But on Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said if coronavirus is declared a pandemic, Australia's strategy will not change overnight.

"If a pandemic is declared but we are in containment in Australia, we'll just continue what we're doing now. It's just a label. A pandemic is a label that simply says there is sustained community transmission in several countries."

Health Minister Mr Hunt said if more cases appear, the government will react with "the idea of rings of containment … with individuals, families or affected units, and if we can contain those, then we can limit the impact".

Should cases rise, the government will look to the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan For Novel Coronavirus, which will guide a response.

The plan discusses the possibility of more extreme "social distancing" measures, such as "school or workplace closures, or cancellation of mass gatherings".

Associate Professor Mackay said the main aim of this "will be to mitigate the spread of the virus, to slow it down so that we don't overwhelm hospitals".

"So perhaps now, talk to your boss about what the options are for working at home if you can do that … Plan what will happen if you need to look after children."

Medical staff with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.
Medical staff with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Associate Professor Mackay suggested sports matches will be affected, that "perhaps NRL season passes could be interrupted by games being stopped".

"What we've seen from China - the closure of events and mass gatherings could work to slow down the spread," he said.

"These things are unusual and could be scary but ... they're just trying to slow the virus down."

UNSW's Professor MacIntyre said it's hard to tell how many Australians could be infected in a pandemic, but the fatality rate stands at around one to three per cent.

"We're as ready as we can be … But it doesn't mean it will be easy."

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch