Did Australia's Black Lives Matter protests cause a spike in COVID-19 cases?

Since the 6 June Black Lives Matter protests took place across Australia, there have not been mass outbreaks of COVID-19 as some had warned.

Protesters are seen during a Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne on 6 June.

Protesters are seen during a Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne on 6 June. Source: AAP

It's been more than two weeks and the country has not experienced a major spike in COVID-19 cases linked to the events. 

Despite strong warnings in the lead-up, so far only four people who attended the Melbourne protest have tested positive to coronavirus and experts say it is unlikely they spread it to other demonstrators.

"We've seen more cases, but they don't appear to be linked to the protests," Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, told SBS News.

Thousands of protesters took a knee in Sydney at 4.32pm to mark the 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991.
Protesters took a knee at Sydney's Belmore Park and held a minute silence for Indigenous Australians who have died in custody. Source: AAP

State and federal health authorities echoed this on Monday.

The nation's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told reporters "we probably were lucky to have not seen major transmission at any of these events".

And Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said the protests had not contributed to .

"I don't think the Black Lives Matter protest has contributed. We're not seeing people who've clearly acquired it there," he said.

More than 5,000 people packed Victoria Square in Adelaide where police praised the organisers.
More than 5,000 people packed Victoria Square in Adelaide where police praised the organisers. Source: AAP

The protests were held on 6 June and Department of Health material says the incubation period for COVID-19 can be up to 14 days.

Strong warnings

In the lead-up to the protests, politicians and health authorities issued strong warnings and instructed people not to attend.

"Our message is very clear that the health risks of gathering in such large numbers and in close proximity are real," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt warned that "if there is someone who is infectious in the midst of a crowd like that, that can have a catastrophic impact".

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann issued one of the strongest rebukes the day after the protests.

"I think it is incredibly selfish, it is incredibly self-indulgent, and yes it does impose unnecessary and unacceptable risks on to the community," he said.

'Good news'

Professor Collignon, who has also worked for the World Health Organization, said there are a number of reasons why a spike in cases did not materialise.

"My presumption is the reason we haven't seen [a spike] is because we have very low community transmission rates ... and that it was outside," he said.

"What we clearly know from both Australian and overseas data is that being inside is a much higher risk than being outside."

Protesters gathered in Sydney's CBD
Protesters gathered in Sydney's CBD Source: Nick Baker/SBS News

"[It's] good news, because it means providing community transmission rates stay low, there are probably a lot more things we can do outside with more people and probably be reasonably safe."

Professor Collignon said the precautions taken by protesters, such as wearing masks, would also have helped.

But he did not say politicians and health authorities overreacted in the lead-up to the protests.

"I was one of the people saying 'I don't think this is a good idea to put such big crowds together' ... This is learn-as-you-go."

A young girl holds up a sign during the Sydney protest
A young girl holds a sign at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney. Source: SBS News: Nick Baker

He stressed while Australia was fortunate to not have a spike caused by the protests, the country cannot get complacent.

"This virus is still around in Australia ... It's not very hard to spread and winter is much more of a risk than summer," he said.

He said it was essential to practice good hand hygiene and maintain social distancing whenever possible.

"And the main thing is anyone who has any respiratory symptoms at all - a sore throat, a fever - do not leave home, do not see other people ... Eighty per cent of transmission is done by symptomatic people."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at .

4 min read
Published 22 June 2020 at 8:46pm
By Nick Baker