A crowd of protesters in front of Flinders St Station
Protesters during a Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Australians have been prepared, so far, to accept that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are based on sound medical advice. This has led to a remarkable degree of compliance with lockdown and isolation and reduced the spread of the virus.

There is clear evidence that distancing has been effective in reducing COVID-19 infections. There is an argument that Australia’s lockdown was harsher than needed, but by and large the public has been prepared to trust the medical advice.

That trust may not last if medical advisers display inconsistency in their advice about risks of infection. 

Official medical warnings to people not to attend Black Lives Matter protests have struck an inconsistent note.

Some medical voices supported the protests — notably the Public Health Association of Australia pointed out that racism is a real and ever-present public health issue

However, official Australian government medical advisers including the chief medical officer issued stern warnings for people not to protest. There were similar messages in NSW and Victoria.    

It is hard to see how this fitted in with the other major social event for many Australians this weekend and last — restaurants and bars.

Rules differed across the country. 

In Victoria, venues were limited to 20 patrons (which will increase from next week). 

In NSW, bars, pubs and restaurants could serve up to 50 patrons (a limit that will be lifted at the end of the month), with one customer per four square metres and groups of not more than 20.

Four metres per person is the theory. In practice, anyone who has worked in an old pub knows there are always odd spaces where nobody can sit anyway — spaces that count towards the total per person. 

Groups were allowed, so people sat next to each other on big tables. 

It’s possible chief medical officers had a different concept of what restaurants would be like under the rules: visions of tables placed discreetly apart, starched white tablecloths and quiet conversation as waiters silently drift among separated diners. 

A more common sight down the pub was people sitting down together, scarfing down steak and chips and chicken parmis, loud, alcoholic, cheery and determinedly un-isolated.  

Multiply that across tens of thousands of venues and the total numbers exposed are much higher than those attending protest marches.

Transmission of COVID-19 is significantly higher in enclosed spaces (by almost 19 times, according to one Japanese study). Bars and restaurants pose a much higher risk than an outdoor event. 

Black Lives Matter protests the previous weekend had attracted crowds of up to 10,000, and this weekend’s events in Perth and Darwin and elsewhere also saw thousands of protesters.

The risks of these were low, primarily due to being outdoors, of limited duration, and maintaining distances between people. 

Even if a rally attracts thousands of people, nobody goes round hugging or breathing on every other attendee. People stay in their own small groups. An individual attendee has contact with only a few people. 

Organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests have been taking care to minimise risks, including encouraging distancing and advising attendees to wear masks. 

There will be more cases of COVID-19 in Australia. Stopping protest marches will make little if any difference to the number.

The discovery that one Black Lives Matter protester in Melbourne had tested positive was seized on by anti-protest commentators prematurely. We need to wait to see whether it leads further. It may translate into further cases — but given the evidence on low transmission in outdoor environments, probably will not. 

If, by contrast, all bar and restaurant patrons were tested — a hypothetical scenario, infeasible with current testing regimes — chances are many more positive cases would have been spotted than that single one in Melbourne.   

We expect inconsistency in politicians. Last Friday in Crikey Bernard Keane excoriated the current display of double standards over protest warnings. 

Medical advisers, however, should be more balanced. If medical advice is one-sided, biased against some forms of social gathering and favouring others, people will quickly lose trust in it. 

Should health officials be more balanced with their advice? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.