You can almost hear the sound of pitchforks being sharpened.
Last week, the NSW and Victorian governments released damning data which showed the biggest clusters of COVID-19 infections were located in some of the states’ most affluent areas: the beachside areas of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and Toorak and the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
Speaking on ABC radio yesterday, Health Minister Greg Hunt fired a parting shot at Australia’s recalcitrant one-percenters.
“If somebody thinks just because they’re rich, that they’re not a vector, if they think just because they’ve got a lovely house on a cliff, that they’re above the law, they’re wrong.”
But Hunt’s warning was too late. As details of these clusters become clearer, so too do the lives of Australia’s elites, whose cocktail parties and society events which continued well into late March are emerging as vectors of transmission. And many of these clusters can be traced back to one source: Aspen, the ski town in Colorado synonymous with elites.
The Aspen cluster
Andrew Abercrombie, a former Victorian state Liberal Party treasurer and businessmen had been visiting the resort town every northern winter for about a decade. In early March, he held a party at his Aspen apartment.
Abercrombie did not have COVID-19, and has been self-isolating. But nine Australians who were in Aspen at the time tested positive. Two others refused to be tested. They didn’t want to interrupt their holiday.
Another couple who attended the Abercrombie party breached a coronavirus quarantine in Aspen to continue skiing, and only narrowly avoided legal action from Colorado state authorities.
Many came home from Aspen in early March before all returned travellers were forced to self-isolate. But last week, The Age reported that a Victorian couple, a “wealthy financial industry figure” and his partner, who had tested positive after returning home from Aspen without symptoms, were not complying with requirements to quarantine.
The couple were spotted at shops and a golf course around the Mornington Peninsula, where rich Melburnians escape for holidays or retirement. Many locals were furious at the couple, and other members of “the Aspen Nine”, who had allegedly refused to self-isolate upon returning home. Some had come to the peninsula from Melbourne hoping to socially distance in quieter, beachside surroundings, only to find people with the virus had done the same.
But others spoke up for the Aspen couple, saying they’d been “victims of a smear campaign by ‘bored housewives’”.
Trouble in Toorak
The Aspen cluster would continue to spread through the blue blood of Melbourne’s elite, sustained by a series of parties and gatherings that continued even as swathes of the country were shutting down.
A woman who returned to Australia on Friday March 13 attended a 21st birthday party in Malvern the next day.
Over 80 guests, mostly former students from elite Melbourne private schools, were also in attendance, and at least six have been infected. The infected woman’s son sent around a text message the next day urging people to get tested. But by then it was too late.
Meanwhile, another couple who’d been at Aspen attended a cocktail evening for Geelong Grammar School parents in Toorak. Five guests at the function have tested positive so far, and furious attendees are reportedly considering legal action.
So far, two people who’ve come into contact with the Aspen cluster, including a man who was at the Geelong Grammar event, have had to be placed on ventilators.
The Noosa cluster
In another sign of how quickly and far COVID-19 can spread, the Aspen cluster has also reached all the way to south-east Queensland. On March 14, property developer Glen Wright held a 50th birthday celebration at Sails, a restaurant on the beach at Noosa. All it took was one guest who’d returned from Aspen, and now around 30 guests and staff working at the party have been infected.
Sydney society events are also cursed, even though the clusters seen in Bondi can largely be traced back to the beachside suburb’s ubiquitous backpacker parties.
Scott Maggs, aka Jimmy Niggles, a marketing personality, and his new wife Emma Metcalf, were enjoying a honeymoon in the Maldives when they discovered two guests at their wedding, held March 6 in Stanwell Tops, a beach suburb outside Sydney, had COVID-19. There are now 42 attendees who have been infected.
A crisis of inequity
The rise in cases in Australia’s wealthiest postcodes further highlight the class dimensions to the current crisis. While elites returning from Aspen with the virus can self-isolate (however poorly) in beachside holiday homes, it’s those several rungs down the economic ladder, in precarious, casual work, who are on the coalface.
Economist Roger Wilkins, deputy director of the Melbourne Institute, told Crikey although it seems to be elites getting infected, it’s an “ironclad law” that a crisis like this will accentuate existing inequality.
“Whenever there’s a crisis or adverse event, whether it’s a pandemic, war or economic crisis, low SES [socioeconomic status] people suffer more than those of a higher SES. They’re not in a position to protect themselves in the same way,” Wilkins says.
There is, however, a silver lining. From raising Newstart, to yesterday’s wage subsidy announcement, we’re seeing a conservative government radically alter and expand their role in the economy.
Wilkins suggests when the dust settles, community attitudes might have shifted such that people demand a far more interventionist role for government in the economy, and a continuation of such measures that may reduce inequality.
Of course, that would likely mean higher taxes — more trouble for Toorak.
Correction: This article has been updated to provide Andrew Abercrombie’s correct role with the Victorian Liberal Party. A previous version referred to him as a former state director