2020: Masks, panic buying, isolation

The Big Issues: Looking back on COVID-19 in regional Queensland

Coronavirus
Kerrie Richards' Merino Country factory at Shailer Park turned to the full-time production of face masks made of Merino wool at the end of March. Picture supplied.

Kerrie Richards' Merino Country factory at Shailer Park turned to the full-time production of face masks made of Merino wool at the end of March. Picture supplied.

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"Social isolation" - it became the phrase that defines 2020.

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"Social isolation" - it's become the phrase that defines 2020, thanks to the global pandemic resulting from the new virus that was first reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019.

A year later COVID-19 has killed 1.7 million people, reaching all corners of the world and changing many facets of society.

By mid-February in Australia it was still a threat confined largely to returning international travellers and passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, one of whom became the country's first death from COVID-19 on March 1.

The situation rapidly escalated in March as events, starting with the Australian Grand Prix, began cancelling.

Queensland politicians Peter Dutton and Susan McDonald were among those to announce they'd been diagnosed with the virus, alongside Prince Charles and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

It was also the month two cruise ships, Ovation of the Seas and Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, discharging COVID-positive people.

As March ended, restaurants, churches, casinos, cinemas, gyms, indoor sports venues and entertainment venues were all closed, along with the licensed parts of hotels, as part of a national lockdown.

Domestic flights were suspended and schools were preparing for a term of online learning, including Queensland's boarding schools.

The parts of Australia, and Queensland, best able to withstand the onslaught of coronavirus were the rural and remote areas for whom social distancing has always been a way of life.

Apart from a false positive when the virus was wrongly given as the cause of the death of Nathan Turner at Blackwater at the end of May, no cases of the virus were recorded in western Queensland at all.

Signs such as these became commonplace during the lockdown.

Signs such as these became commonplace during the lockdown.

Among the entrepreneurial Queensland businesses adapting to new demands were the Beenleigh Rum and Bundaberg Rum distilleries, which started producing hand sanitiser.

We've never had anything like this to deal with before. It's usually cyclones that get us this nervous, or Panama TR4 - James Howe, Walkamin

Queensland wool garment maker Merino Country rapidly repurposed its business and machines into the production of masks in order to help meet demand from the public for personal protective equipment.

Among its first bulk orders was Walkamin-based horticultural company, Howe Farming Enterprises, for its workforce of nearly 600.

"The anxiety was there, they were feeling concerned about what's ahead," James Howe said.

The panic that set in as urban people unused to living in isolation began hoarding grocery items such as tinned food and toilet paper, resulted in large remote stations with no way to place their usual bulk orders to resource mustering camps when limits were placed on the number of items that could be purchased at one time.

Georgetown grazier Lyn French, who had been planning a $1500 shop in Townsville at the end of March, returned home after a 1000 km return trip almost empty-handed.

In Mount Isa, property owner Noela McConachy was given a pile of attitude from check-out staff as well as only two packets of peas to feed three households until the next time they were able to travel to town.

The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association called on the Prime Minister to intervene and order the major supermarket chains to solve the supply chain issues even if it meant involving the Australian Defence Force.

"The people in the bush don't have the option of whipping down to the corner store to secure a few odds and ends," NTCA chief executive Ashley Manicaros said.

Thanks to a concerted effort from a variety of peak lobby groups, supermarkets began to use locations as a means of identifying genuine bulk orders.

Outback pubs at Wallumbilla, Roma, Mitchell and Injune felt the brunt of COVID-19 law enforcement as restrictions began easing slightly in June.

They were subject to a weekend compliance operation by Queensland Police in conjunction with the Office of Liquor and Gaming that resulted in fines of $6672.

The flying squad action was condemned as a double standard, given activist protests taking place in Brisbane at the same time repeatedly breached virus protocols, but the state government was unrepentant.

Labour shortage

Labour shortages in Queensland's horticultural industries were flagged as a looming crisis due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Far North Queensland federal MPs wrote to state Agriculture Minister Mark Furner in August, requesting the state government to work with the federal government to find a solution to the possibility of crops being left to rot. Politicians were being warned of looming fruit and vegetable shortages and prices rises.

In November federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said incentives were in place to encourage Australians to take up seasonal work in the regions, and the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme had re-opened.

While saying they were ready to stamp the passports of up to 22,000 workers in the countries that are ready to come to Australia, concerns remain for coming months.

As 2020 ends, Australia has recorded a little over 28,000 cases, the vast majority of them in Victoria, and 908 people have died.

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