Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: May 25

By Chris Woods

Monday May 25, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Over one third of Twitter accounts discussing “reopening America” may be bots

Whether it comes from random Twitter accounts, business owners like Elon Musk, or the office of the President of the United States, misinformation surrounding COVID-19 has had real and damaging consequences; for example, WIRED reports that the US Department of Homeland Security is currently on alert after the “5G causes coronavirus” conspiracy theory led to dozens of cell-tower burnings across Europe.

In an attempt to limit the spread of misinformation, Twitter announced earlier this month it would begin flagging misleading Tweets, even if, as CNN reports, it includes Donald Trump’s account. This comes after an 18 March 18 decision to outright delete COVID-19 tweets that could cause a “direct risk to people’s health or well-being.”

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Source: Twitter via CNN.

In a separate attempt to examine deceptive Twitter practices, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have combed through more than 200 million tweets since January for bot activity. Of the top 50 influential retweeters of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” tweets, researchers found that 82% are bots; of the top 1,000 retweeters, 62%.

They further identified more than 100 types of inaccurate COVID-19 stories shared by bots — including tweets concerning “potential cures” — but also found accounts were dominating conversations about ending stay-at-home orders and “reopening America”.

Of those tweets, 66% were found to have been generated by accounts that are possibly humans “with bot assistants”; accounts that are definitely bots generate the remaining 34%.

What does the research mean for the fight against misinformation?

Professor in the School of Computer Science’s Institute for Software Research Kathleen Carley says the project — which is ongoing and has since expanded to include Facebook, Reddit and YouTube — discovered up to twice as much bot activity as researchers had predicated “based on previous natural disasters, crises, and elections”.

Artificial intelligence processes have helped determine whether accounts are bots or not by scanning account information for number of followers, frequency of tweets, mention networks, and location data. Carley notes that, while periods of social distancing have meant more time for individuals to create home-made bots, the spike also includes an increase in sophisticated, global groups hiring firms to run bot accounts.

While the team found a number of indicators suggesting a coordinated “reopen America” campaign — specifically the large number of recently-created bots, or messages that have been copied and pasted from one bot account to another — they could not point to specific entities behind these attempts.

“We do know that it looks like it’s a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks, but it would take a tremendous amount of resources to substantiate that,” she says.

Obviously, not every account calling to “reopen America” is a bot; see the number of US and now Australian protests.

However, it’s worth noting that a subset of these tweets reference conspiracy theories — i.e. fake hospitals, the “5G tower” myth — and, in turn, asking who has a vested interest in heightening this debate.

“Conspiracy theories increase polarisation in groups. It’s what many misinformation campaigns aim to do,” Carley said. “People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides.”

“Increased polarisation will have a variety of real-world consequences, and play out in things like voting behaviour and hostility towards ethnic groups.”

For more, check out Crikey Inq’s series on COVID conspiracy theories.

No evidence that re-positive cases are infectious: South Korea report

There are multiple, lingering questions over the phenomenon of “re-positive cases”, aka people who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 after having recovered from symptoms and/or testing negative for the virus.

As The Conversation reported earlier this month, theories currently include testing complications, intermittent “shedding” of dead viruses, and the possibility of re-infection ala influenza and tetanus.

In a promising development, South Korea’s Center for Disease Control published a study last week that found no evidence re-positive cases could spread the virus.

Source: KCDC

From 285 patients who tested negative after recovering, and weeks later tested positive, officials traced 790 contacts, including family members.

They found no evidence that contacts were infected; of the 790, just three people were identified as newly confirmed cases during their respective re-positive periods, all three of whom had history of contact with Shincheonji religious group or a confirmed case in their family.

Further, as NPR reports, scientists were unable to grow the virus in secretions from the re-positive patients, and the CDC, on publication, no longer recommends they be quarantined.

While again, the study into this phenomenon is very early days, The Conversation article points out a similar case from a study in China that suggests “virus shedding”, where re-positive cases were not symptomatic, did not infected contacts, and may therefore have tested positive to dead viruses.

Unlike that report, the CDC’s base 250 re-positive cases included 126 people (44.7%) that had symptoms such as coughs, sore throat, etc.

Encouragingly, that distinction would suggest symptomatic re-positive cases still do not spread the virus, although — just like reports of antibodies — it is yet to be seen just how long any of these impacts last.

On the home front: Victoria unveils new timeframe for reopening

Yesterday, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews announced a new timeline for reopening the state, although he emphasised that “if you are working from home, you must keep working from home – at least until the end of June.”

Andrews cites public transport, shared kitchens, lifts etc as reasons for keeping as few people working from offices as possible, but barring that exception Victoria will see the following schedule.

Tuesday, 26 May

  • Outdoor playgrounds, skateparks, and outdoor communal gym equipment will reopen, in line with the return to face-to-face learning in school.

11.59pm Sunday, 31 May

  • Indoor and outdoor gatherings can increase to 20; “For a family of five, that means 15 visitor”.
  • Overnight stays can resume at private residences, accommodation, campgrounds and caravan parks — but not with communal facilities like kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Limits on our most significant ceremonies will be lifted, with up to 20 people allowed at weddings — plus the celebrant and couple — and up to 50 people allowed at a funeral, in addition to those required to conduct the ceremony. Up to 20 will be allowed at other religious ceremonies, in addition to those required to perform the service.
  • Libraries, youth centres and other community facilities will be able to open with no more than 20 people in a single area, plus those needed to operate the space. This includes men’s sheds and arts and crafts classes.
  • Entertainment and cultural venues like galleries, museums, drive-in cinemas, historic sites, zoos and outdoor amusement parks will be able to reopen with physical distancing and a limit of up to 20 patrons per space; indoor venues will also be required to keep customer contact details.
  • Swimming pools will be able to reopen with limits of 20 people and additional safety requirements in place.
  • Community sporting activities will be permitted with up to 20 people in undivided spaces, provided the sport is outdoors, non-competition, non-contact, and people are able to play 1.5 metres apart. Restrictions on professional sport will remain unchanged.
  • Beauty and personal care services like nail salons, spas, tattoo parlours will be able to open with up to 20 customers per space — with customer contact details required to be kept.
  • Auctions and open for inspections will be subject to the 20-person limit — plus those required to conduct the activity — with agents also required to keep the contact details of everyone who attends.
  • Non-food and drink market stalls will also be able to reopen.

Monday, 22 June — subject to continued low transmission/high testing rates

  • Indoor fitness and recreation facilities will open with up to 20 people per space and up to 10 people per group or activity at any one time.
  • Up to 50 people will be permitted in restaurants, cafes, galleries, museums and for the first time, cinemas and theatres.
  • The ski season will be able to open.

NSW launches $50m arts package, will reopen beauty and nail salons from 1 June

Yesterday, the NSW government announced a $50 million COVID-19 ‘Rescue and Restart’ package for the state’s arts and cultural sector.

Funding will be allocated to not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations on a case by case basis, and be delivered in two stages:

  1. Funding available now to enable NSW not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations to hibernate temporarily.
  2. Funding available in the coming months to enable NSW not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations to restart operations after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Separately, the government announced NSW allow beauty and nail salons to reopen with other businesses from 1 June.

The have announced the following safety checklist:

  • One person per 4 square metres, including both staff and clients, up to a maximum of 10 clients at any one time.
  • Exclusion of staff and clients who are unwell, even if they have only mild symptoms.
  • Records of attendance on the business premises for all staff, clients and contractors.
  • Cleaning requirements.
  • Removal of books, magazines and iPads from waiting areas to reduce the potential for infection of clients.
  • Seating in waiting areas that complies with physical distancing.
  • Ensure good hand hygiene facilities are available, including at venue entry and exit, and promote excellent hand hygiene by staff.
  • Clearly displayed conditions of entry on their entrance, website and social media platforms.
  • Designating a staff member whose responsibilities include ensuring staff and clients have appropriate physical distancing and that the venue does not exceed the maximum capacity limit.
  • Measures to maximise distancing between staff where safe and practical, including assigning staff to specific work stations that are at least 1.5 metres apart and minimising any interaction between these stations.

The government has called for salons to encourage downloads of the COVID-safe app, although anything approaching coercion remains a criminal offence.

Tasmania outlines new testing phase

Over the weekend, Tasmania’s Minister for Health Sarah Courtney outlined an expansion of the state’s mobile testing sites and cohort categories for targeted testing.

From tomorrow, pop-up mobile clinics will visit Mowbray Racecourse and the Derwent Entertainment Centre in Glenorchy, with Sorell and Prospect to host pop-up clinics next week. These clinics will operate from Tuesday to Thursday from 10am in the morning, with no bookings required.

Further, after visiting George Town, Oatlands and Nubeena over the weekend, mobile testing clinics will travel to Dunalley, Triabunna, Rosebery and Queenstown, and Deloraine next weekend.

The state will also expand testing with more cohort categories, in addition to a focus of people with symptoms, to now include:

  • All persons presenting with respiratory symptoms, or with history of recent respiratory symptoms (within the last 7 days)
  • All hospital patients who are being discharged to residential aged care facilities (mandatory)
  • Healthcare Workers who are symptomatic (mandatory) or asymptomatic (voluntary)
  • Close contacts between days 10-12 of quarantine periods (voluntary, from this week)
  • Non-essential travellers between days 10-12 of quarantine periods (voluntary, from this week)

Elsewhere, the state will expand their ‘Click & Collect’ service across more libraries this week, and will return Primary and Year 11 and 12 students to the classroom from today.

State wrap

  • The Queensland government welcomed the Study Queensland Luhrmann Appeal, a donation campaign launched by Lilly Luhrmann — daughter of film legend Baz — to be run in partnership with the state’s lead international education unit Study Queensland, charity “warehouse” GIVIT, and the Queensland Government Care Army.
  • Ahead of biosecurity restrictions easing on 5 June, the NT government will today launch intra-Territory tourism campaignTime to be a Territorian’.
  • The South Australian government announced the $5 million Nature-Based Tourism Co-Investment Fund, to run under the existing $22 million Parks 2025 program to fast track recovery after both coronavirus restrictions and bushfires devastated much of the state.

A front page to remember

Finally, in an all-timer front page, The New York Times yesterday published the names and, in some cases brief obituaries, of 1,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19.

As the background piece ‘The Project Behind a Front Page Full of Names‘ explains, the page included names and vivid passages from obituaries and death notices with the intention of overcoming “fatigue with the data”, both amongst NYT journalists and members of the general public.

That it continues for another three pages and only scrapes the surface of the almost 100,000 deaths is, in a number of ways, incomprehensible.

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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