In today’s CoronaCheck, we stay close to home with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region: from vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong to the spread of the so-called Indian COVID-19 variant.
We also take a look at the latest fact checks from Taiwan, and bring you the facts on gas-reliant jobs in Australia.
Tracking the ‘Indian’ COVID-19 variant
As Victoria headed into yet another lockdown, the state’s contact tracers were working to track and test at least 10,000 contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told yesterday’s media briefing the strain of the coronavirus involved in the latest outbreak was “one of the most infectious we have seen”.
The new cases confirmed in Melbourne this week have been identified as belonging to the B.1.617 lineage of the virus, colloquially known as the “Indian variant”.
According to Professor Sutton, while it usually took between six and seven days for a person to pass on COVID-19 after becoming infected, current cases were being transmitted “within a day”.
“Unless something drastic happens, this will become increasingly uncontrollable,” he warned.
The variant has also worried health officials elsewhere, with Public Health England, for example, declaring B.1.617.2 to be a “variant of concern” on May 6, and the World Health Organization (WHO) following suit on May 12.
Online, however, some social media users have suggested there is something amiss in the way the virus has spread from India to other countries.
“Amazingly the Indian variant chose England rather then [sic] 8 countries on it’s [sic] way 4,688,” one widely shared Facebook post reads. “Could of [sic] just gone 5 miles to Pakistan. Turn the News off you fools.”
But the inference that the B.1.617 variant has not spread to Pakistan or other countries lying between India and the UK is incorrect.
A recent WHO epidemiological update put the number of countries which have recorded cases stemming from B.1.617 at 44.
According to fact checkers at UK-based Full Fact, the variant has “been found across many continents, and many countries ‘between India and the UK’ “.
“Many other countries have also sequenced cases of the B.1.617 variants, including countries across Asia, South-East Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean,” Full Fact noted.
“The UK, however, has sequenced the highest number of cases.”
Additionally, a report published in Asia Times found that denials from Pakistani officials that the variant had entered the country ignored the fact that the nation did not have testing kits able to detect the variant.
“Research institutions in Pakistan have detected some ‘unknown variant’ constituting 15 per cent of the country’s total infections that may be the Indian variant, but the lack of specialised testing kits has hampered the identification process,” the report said.
Vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong
Poll findings were described by misinformation researchers at First Draft as “somewhat peculiar”, given Hong Kong’s track record in controlling infectious disease outbreaks.
They show the number of people in the territory who say they are willing to have the COVID-19 vaccine or have already done so — about 39 per cent — is among the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region.
That hesitancy appears to have its roots in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests of 2019 which bred a “deep distrust” of authorities, according to First Draft.
A lack of confidence in both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to act in the people’s best interest during the turmoil was now being reflected in a number of dominant online narratives driving vaccine hesitancy.
Many of the narratives have focused on the Chinese COVID-19 jab developed by Beijing-based pharmaceutical company Sinovac.
“The most prominent vaccine misinformation in Hong Kong includes misleading claims about the safety of the Sinovac vaccine as well as unfounded claims that the Hong Kong government may be pushing the Sinovac shot for political reasons,” First Draft reported.
“These examples demonstrate that apprehension about the vaccines is as much a sociological phenomenon and an emotional response as it is a lack of understanding scientific facts.”
Among the false or misleading claims being spread in Hong Kong are suggestions that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had not received the Sinovac shot (she had) and that the deaths of some people within 14 days of receiving the jab could be linked to the vaccine (at the time, no clinical evidence supported such a claim).
Additionally, the First Draft team found that negative reactions and misinformation about the BioNTech vaccine, which is also available in Hong Kong, was “relatively muted”.
“This means scepticism toward the Sinovac vaccine could have been compounded by misleading narratives and negatively framed headlines, as well as a lack of transparency over data on its efficacy and safety,” it said.
According to First Draft, vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong was demonstrative of a “feedback loop formed by scientific, emotional and political concerns”.
“People are reluctant to get vaccinated because they are worried about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and the government’s agenda, and the fewer the people getting vaccinated, the more sceptical the public becomes about the government and the vaccines it provides.
“Compounded by headlines that focus on adverse reactions and side effects, often without important context, even fewer people will be willing to be vaccinated.”
Pete Evans fined, again
Controversial celebrity chef and wannabe senator Pete Evans has this week copped close to $80,000 in fines for repeatedly breaching health product advertising rules.
As reported by ABC News, Mr Evans was issued six infringement notices and directed to take down ads relating to hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers, two oral medicines and a device called a BioCharger.
Mr Evans last year suggested the $15,000 BioCharger could be used to treat COVID-19, a claim which landed him a $25,000 fine at the time.
“In announcing the latest fines, the [Therapeutic Goods Administration] said the products were being advertised for their claimed therapeutic benefits, but they were not included on the [Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods],” the ABC reported.
Previously held up as a pandemic success story, Taiwan — an island with a similar population to that of Australia — is battling a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
With case numbers surging, fact checkers in Taiwan have worked to stem the seemingly inevitable flow of misinformation coinciding with an outbreak.
The Taiwan Fact Check Centre found, for instance, that warnings to residents of New Taipei City to stay inside and close doors and windows due to a city-wide sanitation program were based on incorrect information.
While the city did carry out a 24-hour sanitisation, it was not on the date suggested in the warnings, and it did not use “highly toxic chemicals”.
The fact checkers also found that South Korea had not “offloaded” 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Taiwan because the nation believed it to be “inferior”. Rather, the doses were sourced through the global vaccine sharing program COVAX.
Meanwhile, a viral audio recording purporting to feature a Taiwanese legislator recommending drinking water and taking hot baths as COVID-19 treatments was found to have been misattributed.
Further, there is no evidence supporting either “treatment” as effective against COVID-19.
Andrew Liveris admits ‘incorrect’ claim
A key business adviser to the federal government who endorsed its “gas-fired recovery” plan has conceded that his controversial recent claim that 850,000 Australians work in industries using natural gas as feedstock was “incorrect”.
Andrew Liveris told RMIT ABC Fact Check that the 850,000 figure was actually the Australian Bureau of Statistics employment number for all manufacturing jobs and not just those in sectors using gas as a feedstock.
However, he said all manufacturing jobs were “dependent on the aggregation of supply chains and associated manufacturing ventures that draw on gas directly”.
The former chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company and adviser to the Trump administration clashed with former prime minister Malcom Turnbull over the issue on a recent edition of the ABC’s Q+A program.
The jobs assertion was also challenged in Federal Parliament.
Mr Liveris told Fact Check via email that he had not had the opportunity to properly explain himself “due to the style of the program”.
“Gas as a key input and enabler, including as a feedstock and source of direct energy, in energy intensive sectors like steel, aluminium, bricks, paper, food production and packaging, cement, petrochemicals, fertilizers, explosives and other sectors impacts 850,000 manufacturing jobs in Australia,” he wrote.
“The literal expression of this on the Q+A program was that its use as a feedstock for all these sectors is incorrect.
“The correct assertion is that 850,000 (the ABS number for workers in manufacturing) jobs are dependent on the aggregation of supply chains and associated manufacturing ventures that draw on gas directly, and not as electricity.”
According to ABS data, there were 853,781 jobs in manufacturing in June 2019.
The same year, Chemistry Australia, the peak body representing the chemicals industry, commissioned a report by consultancy group ACIL Allen.
It identified a specific set of sub-sectors that use gas as a chemical feedstock: gas manufacturing (including micro-LNG for domestic uses); other basic polymer manufacturing; fertiliser manufacturing; and, explosives manufacturing.
The report found that in 2017-18 there were 9,232 direct jobs in the gas feedstock chemical sector.
It estimated that there were further indirect jobs in the sector of between 24,396 and 39,269.
Fact checking the PM on benefit
Ahead of the end of the fortnightly Coronavirus Supplement on March 31, the Morrison government announced it was permanently increasing the unemployment benefit by $50 a fortnight, from April 1, 2021.
At a February 23 news conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the increase would take the unemployment benefit (when expressed as a proportion of the minimum wage) back to the level that prevailed during the time of the Howard government.
“I think the more relevant feature to focus on is what it is as a percentage of the minimum wage,” Mr Morrison said. “And this brings [the unemployment benefit] up from 37.5 per cent up to 41.2 per cent.
“That is commensurate with where it sat during the period of the Howard government.”
Fact Check this week found that claim to be exaggerated.
The April increase to JobSeeker (which replaced the Newstart Allowance) put the payment as a proportion of the minimum wage at below even the lowest point reached during the period of the Howard government (41.5 per cent).
It was also below the average of 43.6 per cent for the Howard-era as a whole, and well under the high reached shortly after Mr Howard was elected (46 per cent).
As experts noted, benchmarking the unemployment benefit against the minimum wage also paints the increase in a more favourable light because the minimum wage has risen more slowly than other forms of income.
For example, the increase took the unemployment benefit to 71.5 per cent of the basic age pension, up from 65.7 per cent.
But that was well below the average of 89.3 per cent for the Howard era, and below the low point of 82.8 per cent reached, at the end of Mr Howard’s prime ministership.
The unemployment benefit has also fallen over the past two decades, relative to the poverty line.