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Tourism on alert as anti-racism rallies collide with pandemic

June 9, 2020 Headline News No Comments Email Email

The tourism industry has a lot at stake this week, as time reveals whether last Saturday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Australian cities trigger a new surge of Covid-19 infections.

The coronavirus loves crowds and it has no politics.

New Zealand and Australia are leading the world in reducing incidence of Covid-19. New Zealand is now Covid-19 free. The last remaining active Covid-19 case there has recovered and New Zealand has marked 18 days in a row without a new case. Social distancing has played a big part. The suggested trans-Tasman ‘travel bubble’ (which would help revive tourism businesses in New Zealand and Australia) will happen only if Covid-19 infections in Australia fall to zero or near zero.

“The coronavirus is here to stay for the short term, the next 12 to 24 months at least, and we’re going to have outbreaks,” Flight Centre chief Graham “Skroo” Turner told the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

“If you don’t accept that, everyone is kidding themselves,” he added.

Turner found international travel harder to predict, but he is hopeful a “travel bubble” can open with New Zealand as soon as August, followed by the Pacific Islands and possibly Singapore. Travel to or from North America and Europe would not return this year, he said, and recovery to pre-pandemic levels would be two to three years away.

Amid all this, to the dismay of health authorities, some people saw the weekend’s Black Lives Matter rallies as signalling an end to coronavirus restrictions in Australia. Why should people maintain social distancing and have to sign in to visit cafés, when thousands can march shoulder-to-shoulder in a demonstration?

“Anybody who goes to a mass gathering during a pandemic is certifiably insane,” NSW Police Minister David Elliot said before the Sydney march. But thousands took part regardless.

In New Zealand, nine days ago (31 May 2020), thousands of Kiwis marched for Black Lives Matter, in one of the largest protests seen in Auckland for several years. Participants observed little or no social distancing.

Despite initial fears, no new cases have occurred in New Zealand. The coronavirus can only spread if it is present in the first place.

In Australia, levels of Covid-19 are encouragingly low. Yet the coronavirus is still around and several state borders will stay closed for a while yet. Community transmission of the virus is still occurring. A fruit picker flew into Queensland from Victoria at the weekend while infectious with the coronavirus, sparking a mass public health alert. The man took two flights and socialised with family and friends on the way. Contact tracers are working overtime.

The coronavirus is very infectious and it spreads fast. Its incubation period (time from exposure to the development of symptoms) is usually between 2 and 14 days. The average is about 5 days.

Will Saturday’s mass Black Lives Matter rallies spread contagion in Australia?

Maybe. Many participants wore masks and the gatherings were held outside, which would have helped prevent transmission. But President of the Australian Medical Association Tony Bartone urged all protesters to stay home, monitor their health and get a coronavirus test if they develop any symptoms.

Social distancing restrictions in NSW currently ban gatherings of more than 10 people outside, or 50 in a pub, bar or restaurant. In Victoria, the limit is 20 people – and even funerals are restricted to 50 people. Despite that, tens of thousands defied the rules and marched on Saturday in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and elsewhere. The NSW Supreme Court initially banned the proposed Sydney march, but the ban was later overturned on appeal.

Protestors are passionate about their cause; they are horrified by the killing of George Floyd by police in the United States and keen to raise their voices against black deaths in custody in the US and Australia. They clearly considered marching was worth the risk. Pity about the timing.

Australia’s Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham described the timing as “incredibly unfortunate”, adding that while he understood the sentiments behind  the protests, the timing showed a lack of regard for other Australians who made sacrifices during coronavirus lockdowns.

As it happens, Covid-19 strikes disproportionately at minority communities – the very people the marches aimed to support.

Trevor Bedford, a scientist studying viruses, evolution and immunity at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has estimated the impact of the Black Lives Matter rallies on the spread of Covid-19 in the USA, including the likely deaths that will result.

Bedford says “the specific action of large-scale public protest at this moment during the COVID-19 pandemic [in the USA] may result in perhaps more than 10 but less than 100 deaths per day”.

Extra deaths, that is. Every day.

Bedford notes that “these deaths will likely be disproportionately among black individuals (https://covidtracking.com/race)”. Black people account for 13% of the US population and 24% of Covid-19 deaths in the US (in cases where race is known).

In Australia and elsewhere, some demonstrators at the Black Lives Matter rallies said openly they would not let fear of a virus stop them demonstrating against racism.

Similarly, world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua turned out to a Black Lives Matter protest in Britain, (where Covid-19 has killed over 40,500 people) and told the crowd: “The virus has been declared a pandemic. This is out of control. And I’m not talking about Covid-19. The virus I’m talking about is called racism.”

Many protestors carried signs saying: “I can’t breathe.” Those were George Floyd’s final words.

In a chilling irony, advanced-stage Covid-19 causes extreme difficulty in breathing, sometimes requiring artificial ventilation.  It strikes at the lungs and fills them with fluid and gel.

This week and next week will be ones to watch, particularly next week. The relevant section of the Australian Government Department of Health website, constantly updated, shows total cases, recoveries, deaths, and new cases in Australian states and territories over the preceding 24 hours.

Any hope of state borders reopening – let alone a trans-Tasman travel bubble – requires case figures to reach, or hover at, zero or near zero (single digits) for some time. Until that happens, travellers heading overseas must seek permission to depart this country and will face 14 days quarantine on arrival and the same again on return, deterring almost everyone.

Written by Peter Needham

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