You would be hard-pressed to find a better way to potentially spread a highly contagious disease. Gather together hundreds of thousands of people from around Australia and further afield, confine them in a restricted space for hours at a time, and then let them disperse back to their home towns. That is the problem facing the state and organisers of the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix.
The coronavirus outbreak is causing headaches for event organisers around the world. Japan and Italy have banned crowds or postponed soccer matches, Hong Kong has cancelled most upcoming sporting and arts events, Facebook has cancelled its biggest conference of the year, and many companies have imposed travel restrictions on their staff. For Melbourne, the events capital of Australia, there will be some tough calls to make.
This weekend the city will host Moomba and the final of the women's Twenty20 World Cup, with crowds expected to pour into the CBD and MCG. The following weekend is the grand prix, which is followed soon after by the International Flower and Garden Show, the Food and Wine Festival and the International Comedy Festival. And the AFL returns in two weeks' time, with the season-opening clash of Richmond and Carlton at the MCG sure to attract another huge crowd.
So far, no organisers have pulled the plug, with the chief executive of the Australian Grand Prix, Andrew Westacott, adamant that “we are all systems go". Premier Daniel Andrews has backed the call, relying on guidance from medical experts, who at this stage have no advice beyond encouraging people to follow good hygiene practices. Prime Minister Scott Morrison added his voice on Tuesday, encouraging people to go about their normal lives, including going to big events.
This advice may well have a limited lifespan. As cases continue to emerge, many experts acknowledge that Australia will probably transition from quarantining the few cases that arise to managing a sizeable number of local transmissions.
While Australia has shut out tourists and students from China, further bans have been extended only to Iran, despite the number of outbreaks growing around the world. This strategy accepts the reality that trying to use Australia's ocean borders as protection from the outbreak is about slowing, not stopping, the virus reaching our shores.
The extra time has given Australia's political and medical leaders time to put in place contingency plans and prepare the public for a possible larger outbreak. And if the coronavirus were to take off in Australia, the speed at which it spread would be an important factor in how well medical facilities were able to cope. While hospital beds can be freed up by delaying elective surgery, a rapid outbreak could quickly overwhelm the system.
Which raises the issue of public events, which could potentially exacerbate the spread in Australia even if they were held overseas. The Tokyo Olympics Games will bring together hundreds of thousands of athletes, officials and onlookers from around the globe, including thousands of Australians, let them mingle for 16 days, then send them home. The Games must surely be in jeopardy.
The right decision on whether to go ahead with Melbourne's grand prix, garden show, comedy festival, AFL season and myriad other events needs to weigh up the health consequences against the social upheaval and economic impact on the state. While Australia has the spread of the coronavirus under control, going ahead with life as normal is the right call. We should be prepared, not panic.
Since The Age was first published in 1854, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first.