black lives matter protesters in adelaide
(Image: AAP/Morgan Sette)

For the last three months, Australians have been lab rats. Since the coronavirus hit our shores, we’ve become unwitting participants in a perverse social and scientific experiment that would probably never get ethics approval. 

By closely monitoring these population-wide experiments, we’ve learned an awful lot. We know that social distancing, avoiding gatherings, spending months in dismal hibernation is probably the most effective way to keep the virus under control. 

We’ve also learned a lot about who we are as a country. In Australia, the Ned Kelly myth has been shattered by two months of well-behaved, narc-ish compliance with one of the strictest, most heavily-policed lockdowns in the western world. It’s a sharp contrast to the United States, where protesters took up arms to demand the right to get a haircut. 

That orderliness slipped a little in the last week. When four Minneapolis police officers choked George Floyd to death over a $20 bill, it lit a fuse under long-simmering issues of racial injustice and police brutality we constantly brush aside at home. 

And as thousands took to the streets in defiance of scolding politicians and health officials, it represented a turning point, the beginning of the end of our collective, laser-like focus on COVID-19.

Those rallies will be the latest experiment for our coronavirus lab. Will a genuine and important protest lead to an outbreak of cases, and if it does, where does the fault lie? Can we, as a society, balance our focus on the pandemic with tackling the kind of racism that has stained Australia for centuries? 

How do we do the right thing?

While politicians have spent much of the last week attacking Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, health experts have been far more muted. 

“The short answer is, we don’t know what the impact will be,” says Australian National University infectious diseases expert Peter Collignon.

Collingon says while there is still some low-level community transmission, the virus is less likely to spread outdoors. 

Norman Swan, the ABC science journalist and doctor who’s become one of the most well-trusted, if risk-averse, voices during the pandemic, said the risk of transmitting the virus was “low-ish but not completely absent”.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation chief executive Pat Turner called for vigilance, urging people who attended to follow social distancing and hand hygiene.

“It has been recognised that COVID-19 poses a serious risk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people due to higher levels of chronic conditions especially those aged 50 years and older,” Turner told Crikey. 

The reality is that while gatherings do pose a risk, our virus numbers have been low for weeks. In New South Wales, there hasn’t been a confirmed case of community transmission in 15 days.

Still, it’s undeniable that the protests have caused many progressives who have been highly risk averse about the virus to change their tune slightly earlier than expected. And yesterday, a Melbourne man who’d been at the protests tested positive for COVID-19.

Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Brisbane’s Mater Health Services, felt the challenge wasn’t necessarily the protest but the optics — seeing thousands gathering could make it harder for authorities to control the message about the pandemic risks.

“The greatest risk is the perception and confusion around what other restrictions are now required,” Griffin says.

“I think the risk of that confusion is disengagement and loss of trust in the health system.”

The response to the protests have been a study in confusion and whatabouttery. Many on the right are furious the protests went ahead after Anzac Day was cancelled. Supporters point to calls to return to work and travel, the opening of schools as mass gatherings that are fine with politicians.

Fear of a black protest

But if last weekend’s protests were another test, it was one Australia’s largely white political class failed. UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws sees the protests not as a risk, but a failure by police to listen to the hearts and minds of black Australia.

“The authorities sadly put a premature stop to a conversation that could’ve produced a safe rally. For the authorities not to appreciate that [racism] is a serious public health issue for Indigenous Australians can only come from a position of privilege.”

McLaws, who worked on the response to SARS said that with greater compliance, police could have helped a safe protest happen — handing out masks and hand sanitiser, working with organisers to avoid shouting which can spread viral droplets. She also points out that anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong last month did not cause a large outbreak. 

Instead, NSW Police went to court to try (unsuccessfully) to get last weekend’s protests banned. They’ve succeeded in getting more protests, planned for the weekend, banned, and are promising to make arrests. Since last week, politicians have used the virus as an excuse to attack protesters, rather than engage substantively with what the BLM movement is about. 

Scott Morrison’s attacks on the protesters, largely made over talkback radio, have ratcheted up over the last week, until yesterday, he was suggesting to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that they “should be charged”. This morning, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann suggested protesters could lose JobSeeker payments. 

Unlike the United States, where the protests have caused a profound shift in the discourse around systemic racism and police brutality, here it seems like the coronavirus is being used as a convenient excuse to stay in the comfortable terrain of historical amnesia. 

Notably, in the United States, numerous health experts have come out in support of protests. COVID-19 kills, so does systemic racism. Here, the Public Health Association of Australia called for protests to go ahead, with CEO Terry Slevin pointing out that the pandemic and Black Lives Matter should not be framed as competing health objectives.

The protests expose the limits of a blinkered approach to the pandemic that prioritises the virus above all else, one which can overlook the public health impacts of centuries of racial injustice. 

Coronavirus might have turned Australia into a large laboratory. But an experiment that ignores the health inequities between black and white Australia isn’t going to yield very useful, or just, results.