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While South Australia scrambles to contain its coronavirus outbreak, there are concerns whether the state – and the rest of the country – will be able to cope with the dual crises of the pandemic and bushfire season. By Max Opray.

Covid-19 and the bushfire season

South Australia’s chief public health officer, Nicola Spurrier.
Credit: Kelly Barnes / Getty Images

It was the moment South Australia’s pandemic response team had spent months preparing for.

The state’s charmed run of months with no community transmission of Covid-19 finally came to an end when the virus escaped hotel quarantine in Adelaide via a cleaner.

Contact tracers swung into action. On Sunday afternoon the state’s chief public health officer, Nicola Spurrier, fronted the media to alert the public, urging anyone who had visited a list of potential transmission sites to get tested.

But on the same day another long-dreaded crisis had also returned. Scorching heat, peaking at 38.1 degrees in Adelaide, combined with lightning storms and gusting winds of up to 90 kilometres an hour. Dozens of fires were sparked across the state.

The challenging conditions led to the closure of part of SA’s carefully planned network of mass testing infrastructure, much of which is outside to minimise the risk of contagion.

As a short-lived cool change came through on Monday, the Victoria Park/Pakapakanthi Covid-19 drive-through testing site, closed for part of Sunday due to the fires, had hundreds of cars queued for more than five hours. At the outbreak’s epicentre, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, people anxious to get tested stood in line for as long as 11 hours.

Sam Shelter, a 34-year-old teacher who had been exhibiting symptoms, was turned away from a clinic on Monday after a two-hour wait. He decided to front up again the next day at the testing site in the fringe suburb of Gawler, where he waited in line for six hours before finally being seen.

By then the temperature had begun to rise again and there was no shade or sunscreen available. Officials did hand out water. “If it was in the 30s, I would’ve went home for sure,” Shelter told The Saturday Paper while stranded in line. “I’m still worried my bub will overheat in this weather.”

Over the next two days, as the list of potential transmission sites continued to grow and more locals required testing, the state’s heatwave continued.

With summer yet to begin, what was seen in Adelaide this week was just a taste of what is to come. As spring gives way to summer, Australia faces the ominous challenge of managing a pandemic against the backdrop of an ever-escalating climate crisis.

South Australia’s testing blitz had identified 22 cases by Wednesday, prompting Premier Steven Marshall to order the entire state into a strict lockdown, an attempt to give contact tracers time to track the progress of the virus through the community. International and interstate travel into and out of the state was largely shut down.

Under the strict lockdown conditions, most South Australians are only allowed to leave their homes for essential supplies – or if they need to evacuate for a fire. “During an emergency, if you need to attend an emergency relief centre or a Bushfire Last Resort Refuge, you need to stay outside, alert emergency services ... and follow instructions,” SA Health advised.

There is a serious risk that hot weather could shut down testing sites, inflict heat stress on potentially sick and vulnerable people and dissuade the public from getting tests during the crucial early stages of an outbreak. But the convergence of a pandemic with bushfire season could spell disaster.

On the west coast of the United States, as Covid-19 wreaked havoc in recent months, unprecedented wildfires also raged, serving as America’s own introduction to the new reality of fire tornadoes and lurid orange skies.

Smoke choked US cities, not only causing the respiratory problems that were seen in Australia during the Black Summer but also, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned, likely increasing the risk of complications from Covid-19.

At the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Professor Anthony White is investigating the links between damage from bushfire smoke and coronavirus.

“The research is still in the early stages, but we have found that olfactory cells exposed to bushfire smoke are more sensitive to damage from coronavirus infection,” White tells The Saturday Paper. “This is even more obvious when we look at nasal cells from someone who is older [over 70], rather than a young person.”

White recommends staying indoors when there is bushfire smoke around and using air purifiers, as well as considering P2 or N95 masks, which are effective in protecting against both smoke and the virus.

Ali Mostafavi, an associate professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University, has developed mapping tools to help authorities identify areas vulnerable to both Covid-19 transmission and natural disasters.

He says there are a raft of ways in which bushfires and the virus actively exacerbate each other’s consequences.

He cites as an example how bushfire smoke can trigger respiratory issues in the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, prompting visits to health clinics. This means the people most vulnerable to Covid-19 are heading to sites that could also attract people infected with the virus during an outbreak.

“Another example is that to contain the virus you restrict movement across regions, but in the case of wildfires people want to evacuate to different areas,” he says. “This will lead to potentially infected people spreading to other areas where the virus might not be.”

Mostafavi argues that mapping areas vulnerable to both the pandemic and natural disasters is even more important in a country where the virus is still well contained, such as Australia, as opposed to the US, where much of the country already has high numbers of infected people.

In Australia, Covid-19 restrictions have already posed many challenges for firefighters, making it more difficult to hold safety training sessions and to prepare the land for bushfire season.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria, the state that has experienced the most extensive lockdown measures, is keenly aware of the new obstacles.

The organisation had to suspend all non-essential activities at the height of Victoria’s lockdown, but says it is now working to deliver “vital face-to-face training, undertake planned burning operations and some community safety activities, all under strict Covid-19 guidelines”.

Victorians can find information on the CFA’s website explaining how to evacuate from homes in a Covid-safe way, including instructions for packing masks and hand sanitiser.

Across the border, along the bushfire-ravaged New South Wales south coast, NSW Police Force emergency management officer Warren Goodall tells The Saturday Paper that his team has spent the winter auditing evacuation centres, seeking out larger venues with enough room for social distancing measures and testing facilities.

“The way in which we register people into evacuation centres has been modified to include QR coding and encouraging the use of online registration where possible,” he says.

In July, NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Rob Rogers advised the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which investigated the Black Summer bushfires, that Covid-19 could lead to a significant shortage of local firefighters. Rogers noted that just a few infected volunteers could mean a much larger group of their colleagues would need to self-isolate.

That is what happened in the US, where firefighter numbers were severely depleted by positive Covid-19 cases, including among the prisoners recruited by the Californian fire departments out of the state’s jails – institutions that have been ravaged by the virus.

Compounding the issue, international border restrictions meant many Australian firefighters, often brought in to help contain particularly bad US fire seasons, couldn’t travel overseas.

Similarly, there is doubt as to whether US firefighters will be able to offer assistance during the Australian bushfire season, which is of particular concern given the important role US water bombers played in containment efforts last summer.

Emergency Management Victoria advised The Saturday Paper that efforts are under way to navigate quarantine requirements to ensure eight aircraft and about 30 pilots and ground support personnel from North America can support the state during the fire season.

One of the bushfire royal commission’s recommendations was the establishment of a new Australian aerial firefighting fleet. However, the Morrison government indicated such matters are best left to the states.

A separate review into SA’s bushfires, conducted by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, was affected by Covid-19 restrictions, with planned public forums unable to take place.

The Keelty review was so delayed by the restrictions that recommendations were delivered too late to be fully enacted in time for the upcoming bushfire season. In any case, the review largely ignored the potential impact of Covid-19.

The SA Country Fire Service (CFS) is not naive about the challenges of catastrophic bushfires, particularly in the wake of the Black Summer blazes that torched most of Kangaroo Island and large swaths of the Adelaide Hills.

But as for the state’s Covid-19 response, it has not yet been truly stress-tested, with so few cases this year.

“While some testing sites were required to close early last week and over the weekend due to weather, Covid testing is also available through some private providers, primary health clinics, and also the option of home domiciliary, where appropriate,” SA Health advised.

As for the CFS, a spokesperson dismissed any particular concerns about the convergence of bushfire season with the virus, telling The Saturday Paper on Monday that, for the agency, the situation is “pretty much business as usual”.

The next day, the spokesperson found themselves working out of their car for four hours as they waited in line to get a Covid-19 test at a drive-through clinic. Just business as usual in 2020.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Double trouble".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.