Thousands of Australians have passionately exercised their democratic right to protest over the past week.
I said it earlier this week and I’ll repeat it here: black lives do matter and this is undoubtedly a very worthy cause.
But none of us can ignore the health risk presented by this type of very large gatherings, held at a crucial moment in our COVID-19 pandemic response and in spite of the pleas of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).
Now that we have found one COVID-19 case among those who attended, we may face what my AHPPC colleagues and I fear most – a large, geographically-widespread outbreak that’s going to be difficult to trace.
The priority now is to quickly identify if the virus has spread and to contain outbreaks if they emerge.
We know the virus is still present in the community in low numbers.
We know this is a virus that can spread rapidly among people who are in close contact.
The risk is not a theoretical risk, it’s real. A few months ago, one infectious person attended a 2.5-hour choir practice in the United States and this led to 53 of 61 members of the choir becoming infected. The act of singing might have contributed to this “super spreading event”, just as shouting at a protest may do. That’s why we’re concerned.
Now that the protests have occurred, it is incredibly important that people who attended pay extra attention to their health.
Like all Australians, if anyone who attended the protests develops even a mild cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or a fever, they should get a COVID-19 test and isolate from others until their results are available.
Testing is free through the Australian Government-funded GP-led Respiratory Clinics operating around Australia.
The faster health authorities can find close contacts of people who are infected, the better chance we have of stopping an outbreak. That’s why I would again encourage Australians to join the more than 6.2 million people who have downloaded and registered the COVIDSafe app.
People will ask why the AHPPC advised against the protest mass gatherings, while some jurisdictions are permitting (limited) crowds attending professional games of football. This is not comparing apples with apples.
The organisers of the football games have put strict protocols in place to reduce the likelihood of someone contracting COVID-19. This extends from players, to coaching staff and spectators.
These football crowds are smaller, separated and zoned. Spectators have tickets that identify them and where they’re seated – so authorities know who was in close proximity and can quickly contact them in the event someone nearby tests positive.
The protest gatherings were far larger and less controlled. People from all across cities mixed, then dispersed. This makes it extremely difficult for participants to know who they’ve been in contact with. It makes effective contact tracing virtually impossible.
I know how eager everyone is to get back to the activities we previously enjoyed.
This needs to be done in an orderly way. We have already seen the restrictions on gatherings, food establishments, funerals and weddings lift. Slow and steady is our fundamental principle, to limit people mixing and the dispersing until we can be sure that these changes don’t lead to the virus making a comeback.
Through the hard work of all Australians and many sacrifices, Australia has so far avoided the disastrous situation still being faced by many other countries.
Australia’s successful public health response to date is no guarantee that things can’t go backwards.