If there’s one thing all of us “know” about the COVID-19 breakout in Victoria it’s that it all started with a bonking security guard (or maybe guards) at a city hotel where recent overseas arrivals were housed. Right?

Well… who knows. This story is possibly — probably, almost certainly — at least as true as the “illegal dinner party” of hospital workers in Tasmania back in April. According to chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, that dinner sparked that state’s cluster — until, again per Murphy, it didn’t.

Maybe it’s as true as the apparently strongly held belief that “many of the new cases of COVID-19 in Victoria have been from people who attended the Black Lives Matter protest”. A recent Essential Report showed that 42% of people believed that statement is “probably or definitely true”, compared to 37% who thought it false.

Although a handful of protesters have since tested positive, deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly has said: “there is no evidence that there was … any spread from the Black Lives Matter protest”.

With a shrug, the goalposts then shifted: Health Minister Greg Hunt said “once the protests occurred, there were some who saw what appeared to be an understandable view of a double standard, and changed their behaviours”.

Like the virus itself, gossip about the Melbourne security guards evolved and mutated on the internet’s equivalent of the Wuhan wet market — Facebook and WhatsApp chats — through June.

From what I can trace back, the bonking allegation broke surface with a talkback radio caller who seemed to have heard something from someone. Then The Herald Sun solidified it in print (or, online text at least) with a report on the rumours. Later that day, the Daily Mail amplified the report and, with that, it slipped into the round-ups of the unfolding breakout. It was added as a throwaway line in joking commentary. 

The mystery of the bonking security guard (or guards) has now been quietly hand-balled over to the judicial inquiry into Melbourne’s hotel quarantine program. It disappeared from this past weekend’s COVID-19 tick-tocks although there’s plenty of remnant viral data floating around social media. 

With that, hourly casual security guards joined meat workers, social housing tenants, families celebrating Eid, Bondi backpackers and Chinese lab technicians as the community transmission villains of choice.

It’s an almost medieval approach: disease as moral failing, now with “newspapers … to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men” (as 17th century journalist Daniel Defoe wrote in A Journal of the Plague Year).

Once, in a more forgetting time, these rumours could be dropped into print and, if not substantiated, quietly discarded as newspapers became fish-and-chips wrapping. Now, with social media to power them, these “rumours and reports of things” launched in print become improved by the credibility that old media gives them.

In the time of COVID-19, there’s no tip-toeing away. Fake news never dies.

Just this past weekend, The Weekend Australian reported concerns about fake news circulating in closed Arabic speaking chat groups that the virus came from a secret Chinese lab. Tut, tut! But wait a minute… wasn’t that an exclusive in the Oz’s sibling paper The Tele back in April? Wasn’t it written by “award-winning journalist Sharri Markson” who, just two pages earlier was reported as coming back to the Oz “to further strengthen the national broadsheet’s news-breaking credentials”?

Oh, and its American sibling The New York Post was this same weekend boosting a Fox News interview with a “Chinese virologist in hiding after accusing Beijing of coronavirus cover-up”.

It seems that all these “rumours and reports” are giving us more villains than we need.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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