Rose Schmedding and Maria Shumusti talked to ANU researchers to explore their insights into the virus and its impacts.
We have learnt an incredible amount about a virus we knew nothing about a few months ago.
COVID-19 has hit the world hard, and ANU is no exception.
In the short time since we first heard of this mysterious virus earlier this year, the impacts on the University have been enormous.
As University management has grappled with the logistics of navigating ANU through the situation, our academics have been doing everything they can to help Australia make sense of it.
Our physical environment changed dramatically as many staff and students transitioned from our campus to their homes.
At the same time, our researchers stepped up to the challenge and have been providing expertise and analysis across a huge range of fields, including medical research, sociology, economics, taxation and the relationship with China.
Over the past months, the University has provided an enormous amount of media commentary. Millions of people have seen, read or heard our experts in national, regional and international media.
Experts such as infectious disease physician and microbiologist Professor Peter Collignon and Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake have been appearing daily in the media, talking about how the infection spreads, and what can be done to prevent it and possible treatments on the horizon.
The University has even made personal protective equipment to help to ensure health workers in the ACT and NSW have adequate supplies, through ANU Makerspace.
Professor Carola Vinuesa of the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) was one of the first to know about the virus through her work with Chinese counterparts in Shanghai .
“I was aware of this problem early—I run a laboratory in Shanghai that I had visited in January, and regularly communicated with a group of 150 medical school colleagues from Madrid who were suffering from early overwhelming of their health system with COVID-19,”Professor Vinuesa says.
Professors Vinuesa and Matthew Cook worked to bring together a large group of academics, staff and students who have worked tirelessly over the last three months to develop a testing program to detect both acute and previous infection.
“The increased testing capacity can help us obtain important information on the prevalence of infection; identify individuals who have developed immune responses against the virus; monitor infection in vulnerable populations who cannot maintain physical distancing and importantly, ensure the safe return of ANU students to halls of residence and ANU researchers to the laboratories.”
Stringent testing has been a key strategy for battling the pandemic curve, especially for the ACT.
Dr Gaétan Burgio, a medical researcher with JCSMR, has been screening COVID-19 research manuscripts for preprint servers prior to posting to ensure the science is sound. He says researchers around the world have risen to the challenge that the pandemic has presented with exceptional speed.
“To give some perspective, we have learnt an incredible amount about a virus we knew nothing about only a few months ago.”
Dr Burgio says we now know how the virus works, how it invades a cell, how it suppresses the immune response and we are starting to understand why some people are more susceptible than others. In short, we know why this virus is so nasty.
“We also know how to target it with a vaccine or a drug. The research is going incredibly fast and it is a real struggle to keep up with the research.”
Epidemiologist Dr Aparna Lal from the Research School of Population Health and her team have been investigating using sewage to examine the virus' transmission outside patient testing or hospital reporting.
"In order to limit the transmission of the virus we must find out how much transmission is occurring so that we can act on that information appropriately," she said.
Economically, the virus has presented the Australian Government and people with monumental challenges.
The University has formed a new body of global economists, including experts from about 22 countries, to help Australia and other countries navigate their way to economic recovery.
Co-led by Professor Renee Fry-McKibbin, the program aims to inform policymakers in both developed and emerging economies on issues that they are grappling with as they find their way through the crisis.
Professor Warwick McKibbin and his PhD student Roshen Fernando published the first study on the “Global Economic Impacts of COVID-19: seven scenarios” in late February - before a pandemic was declared. This study was input into policy deliberations by The United States Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, the Korean Ministry of Finance, the US Congressional Budget Office, the US Department of Agriculture, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Treasury. Invited presentations were made in early March to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Professor McKibbin was invited to a meeting at Parliament House in March to discuss COVID-19 response policy with senior government officials. He is currently advising the International Monetary Fund, is on the Australian Treasury COVID-19 Advisory Committee, and he co-authored the Group of 8 Road to Recovery Report on how to respond to the crisis and the recovery.
Economist Professor Bruce Chapman, of Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) fame, has suggested a way to help business in the transition from JobKeeper, through the use of a revenue-contingent loan system similar to HECS. He says that this would enable considerable short-term assistance for fragile businesses, but without adding further disruption to the government’s budget. This idea has now been put forward to the Government for consideration.
Professor Robert Breunig who leads the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at ANU says the epidemic is increasing inter-generational inequality.
He is calling for urgent policy fixes to make Australia's tax system fairer. He proposes a number of solutions, including an increase to GST.
Taxation expert Professor Miranda Stewart has also provided advice on how the Government can build resilience to similar situations.
“I think this crisis, and there will be more, shows that we need to build greater resilience into all of our government fiscal institutions to be able to absorb or respond to external shocks,” she says.
“That includes a higher JobSeeker payment and cashflow support for businesses, while childcare spending would assist many families and children. There will be a long-term impact on revenue collections as the economy is in recession or growth is very low –we need to keep supporting the income of households.”
ANU sociologists have also been monitoring the socio-psychological impacts of the pandemic, specifically in relation to the extreme restrictions that have been leveraged over people’s everyday lives, and they have been noticing the exacerbation of forms of deep-seated social inequality and insecurity.
Associate Professor Gavin JD Smith from the ANU School of Sociology has been exploring how very entrenched social habits and relations have had to be rapidly transformed to deter viral transmission, as well as observing the new models of bio political governance that are emerging.
“COVID-19 has extended in profound ways our technologically mediated culture, with heavy use of ‘platforms’ permitting people to engage in virtual nightlife, homeschooling/working, social networking and consumption. But, equally, it has also afforded an intensification of social and institutional surveillance and excessive curtailments on various civil liberties and rights,” he says.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has been keeping tabs on how Australians are feeling and responding to the crisis through their ANU Polls.
Professor Matthew Gray and Professor Nick Biddle from the Centre have conducted two major surveys on alcohol consumption, mental health, wellbeing and Australians’ initial experiences of the coronavirus.
They have found that two-thirds of Australians are anxious or worried about their own and others' safety in the crisis, and that many have fears for their job security. They have also found that Australians have increased their alcohol consumption since the spread of the virus.
There has been one silver lining however. Professor Frank Jotzo and his team at the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at ANU Crawford School have been researching the contemporary environmental implications of the pandemic.
He says if governments (federal and state) provide economic stimulus through investment programs, this opens the opportunity to fast-track infrastructure projects that enable the transition to a low-carbon economy. Jobs and business opportunities can be created in retrofitting buildings, large-scale clean energy, smarter transport and ecological restoration.
“Conversely, we are likely to face a difficult economic situation for some time, so the appetite for climate change policy might diminish, except where reducing emissions also helps revitalise the economy.
“The pandemic is an important lesson for climate change, where governments tend to underestimate the need for action.”