As the global COVID-19 situation intensifies, it's understandable that some people are feeling anxious about how they may be affected.
It's natural to want to protect yourself and your family from becoming ill, however intense media coverage and misinformation can sometimes lead to unnecessary panic.
Here's a list of things you don't need to buy or worry about, and some useful advice to help you prepare should the situation escalate.
1. You don't need to stockpile N95 or P2 face masks
If you've gone in search of face masks lately, you'll notice many retailers are out of stock. As we currently have a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, the only people that really need to be wearing face masks are people who are infected, in close contact with someone who is infected, or working in a 'high-risk' occupation such as healthcare.
You may also like to consider wearing a face mask if you have a pre-existing condition or if you'll be in close contact with others for an extended period of time, such as on a flight or in a tightly packed train.
On the ABC's Coronacast podcast, physician Dr Norman Swan says that the benefit of wearing a face mask right now in Australia is negligible, as the chances of you passing someone in public who is infected and interacting with them intimately for 15 minutes or so (which could result in infection) is still quite low.
If you are just walking down the street, you don't need to wear a face mask as you are not going to get coronavirus from the airDr Norman Swan
However, he notes that face masks do help prevent the transfer of droplets, so they should be worn by healthcare workers, as well as by people who have the virus or are in close contact with someone who is infected.
"If you are just walking down the street, you don't need to wear a face mask as you are not going to get coronavirus from the air," says Dr Swan. "You have to be in close contact with someone who is infected to allow droplets to be transferred. So even if you are on a plane and there is someone who has the virus sitting three rows away, you're probably not going to get it. The problem arises with large crowds that are closely crammed together such as on tightly packed trains."
Which type of face mask should you buy?
Dr Swan says, "The N95 (P2) face masks are quite good and technically better than a standard surgical mask, however for everyday use in this case where the only requirement is to limit the spread of droplets, there is no difference in performance between the two. A surgical mask is fine."
Unnecessary stockpiling of face masks at this stage may mean that people who do need them aren't able to access any. Although, on 8 March, the government confirmed they have secured an additional 54 million surgical and P2/N95 masks for medical and aged care professionals caring for patients with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Physician Dr Norman Swan says the benefit of wearing a face mask right now in Australia is negligible.
2. Keep the cupboards stocked, but don't go overboard
We've all seen the chaotic scenes of people panic buying toilet paper. While you may feel more secure if you have a couple of weeks' worth of food and supplies in case you need to isolate yourself or your family, remember that not everyone has the ability or finances to buy in bulk.
Rather than buying excess goods, you may like to start adding a few extra items to your shop here and there to build up supplies (remember you'll only need to last 14 days if you do not actually get the virus).
Major supermarkets have now enforced limits on bulk buying of items such as toilet paper, and manufacturers of toilet paper and tissue brands (Sorbent and Kleenex) have assured the public that they anticipate no shortage of supply.
3. Don't buy private health insurance because of COVID-19
CHOICE health insurance expert, Uta Mihm, says: "Do not buy or change your private health insurance policy because you're worried about COVID-19. It will not affect the quality of your treatment."
"If you become ill with COVID-19, you would likely be admitted to a public hospital with an intensive care unit and potentially isolation facilities. As a result, you likely won't have access to benefits afforded by private health insurance, such as choosing your own doctor or getting a private room."
The Department of Health confirms: "The private health insurance status of a patient who is affected by coronavirus will not determine their treatment. Doctors and hospitals determine who receives treatment, the treatment they receive, and the timing of the treatment. It is not determined by the government or insurers."
Panic buying of items such as toilet paper has meant empty shelves are a common sight in supermarkets.
4. Don't buy into misleading advertising
Be on the lookout for businesses who might be tapping into people's anxieties around these times to sell you things you don't need or products that don't do what they promise.
There's a wide range of products being advertised in connection with novel coronavirus, such as medicines and medical devices. There are also cleaning products and sanitisers that are spruiking the claims that they "kill coronavirus", despite the fact they've only been tested on the animal strain of the virus, or a human strain of coronavirus that is not necessarily the same as the one we are currently dealing with (COVID-19).
In regards to medical products, it's illegal to promote goods that claim to test, treat or cure any condition unless it is approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Exercise caution if you see a product that claims to treat COVID-19 and if you have health concerns, follow official health advice and consult a health professional.
5. Most people shouldn't worry about their super
What should you be doing to protect your retirement savings from the impact of COVID-19? Xavier O'Halloran from Super Consumers Australia says most people don't have to worry about doing anything with their super.
"Super is all about the long game and you should invest accordingly," O'Halloran says. "The share market generally bounces back from shocks like this."
"Given most people are more than a decade from retirement, they've got plenty of time to ride out the shocks. For those near retirement, it's time to think about building up a cash buffer to cover your spending while the markets recover."
"In fact, trying to get out of high risk investments at the peak and back in at the bottom is highly unpredictable and can leave you chasing your losses."
We get that for people nearing retirement or post-retirement who still have investments in shares will be feeling very concerned about the state of the market, and we suggest they contact their financial adviser for advice.
6. Do buy travel insurance, but not because you think it will protect you from coronavirus (it likely won't)
Many travel plans have been affected by this pandemic. If you bought travel insurance before the disease became a "known event", you may be covered for medical expenses that arise from contracting the disease overseas, and you may be covered for cancellation expenses. But if you bought insurance after it was a known event, then you likely won't be covered. Check with your insurer directly.
Some insurers are starting to exclude future epidemics and pandemics in their terms and conditions, so be aware of this if you're buying a policy for an upcoming trip. More travel information for Australians is available on Smart Traveller. You can also find out if your travel insurance policy will cover you for COVID-19 by doing our quiz below.
7. Be wary of making your own hand sanitiser
We've seen products like hand sanitiser being sold online at outrageous mark-ups in online marketplaces due to the fact that many retailers are sold out. This has prompted online sharing of many DIY recipes for hand sanitiser. But be wary.
A DIY recipe needs to contain the right percentage of alcohol to be effective. Recipes that contain less than 60% alcohol or that are primarily made up of ingredients such as essential oils will likely not be effective.
Dr Swan says, "Handwashing with soap and water is the best thing to use to kill this virus, followed by a hand sanitiser with the correct percentage of alcohol."
8. You don't need to buy special cleaning products
Unless you're in close contact or living with someone who is infected, you don't have to obsessively clean every surface in your home or every personal item with a specific product. But basic hygiene and general cleaning in communal areas will help limit the spread of the virus.
An analysis of 22 studies on sister viruses to COVID-19 (such as SARS) showed that human coronavirus can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days, but can be efficiently inactivated by simple disinfecting.
Chlorine bleach, strong detergents and isopropyl alcohol solutions and hydrogen peroxide are all good antiviral surface cleaners, but a good scrub with soap and water using a clean cloth will also do the job.
Washing with standard soap and water is the best way to prevent spread of the virus.
9. Don't stockpile medicines
The Therapeutic Goods Administration has not yet received any notifications of medicine shortages in Australia that are a direct result of COVID-19. While you may like to ensure you have at least two weeks' supply of prescription medicines in the event you're quarantined and can't get to the chemist, there is no need to stockpile. This could result in others not being able to access medications they need.
10. Don't neglect your mental health
While it's important to stay informed, receiving high levels of negative information can heighten anxiety. If you need somebody to talk to, consider reaching out to Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or read their advice.
For the latest medical advice and official reports on coronavirus (COVID-19), read the Australian Government's health alert.
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