• Victorian Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen has been criticised for a tweet comparing COVID-19 to Captain Cook's arrival in Australia. (AAP)Source: AAP
A tweet comparing the devastating impacts of Cook's arrival and the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic could result in the resignation of Victoria's Deputy Chief Health Officer, but many have been asking, why?
Jack Latimore, Shahni Wellington

1 May 2020 - 8:52 PM  UPDATED 1 May 2020 - 8:55 PM

Many people in the Indigenous community breathed a sign of relief knowing the commemoration of 250 years since James Cook's arrival in Kamay Botany Bay would pass with little fanfare this year, due to the pandemic of COVID-19 and the consequent mass-cancellation of events nationwide.

But on Thursday night and Friday the resilience of Australia's particular strain of colonisation was in full flourish over a tweet posted by a state deputy chief health officer (CHO) late Wednesday morning.

In a tweet posted to her personal Twitter account, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, Victoria's Deputy CHO and a respected public health physician, likened the 1770 arrival of Cook to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the lifestyle and economy of contemporary Australia. 

"Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror. Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?"

While Dr van Dieman wasn't the first to draw a correlation between the current health crisis and the introduction of foreign disease to an immunologically unprepared population, what has followed may cost the deputy CHO her job. 

The post garnered over 5000 'Likes' since it went live and spurred a litany of online rage calling for Dr van Dieman's dismissal from her position.

The post also received condemnation from several political figures, including the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose home electoral division includes the Kamay Botany Bay site of Cook's arrival, and the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Fact over fury

Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man and CEO of the National Native Title Council, Jamie Lowe, told NITV News he found the response to Ms van Dieman's tweet unsurprising, albeit pretty disappointing.

Following the use of war-time rhetoric by multiple politicians to describe the threat of of the coronavirus to the Australian economy, Mr Lowe questioned why correlations are only able to be drawn between particular parts of Australian history.

"As a broader issue, the story of coronavirus and how that's being told, talks about the Spanish flu back in the early 1900’s, or the kind of crisis that we went through in the First and Second World War," he said.

"But you know, anyone would have thought there were no people here before 1900.

"We know the facts are that hundreds of thousands of people died because of foreign diseases being introduced into the country that we now call Australia.

"So, it’s not a divisive comment. It’s a factual comment," he said.

Dr van Diemen also received strong support on social media from the Indigenous community, including the likes of former Executive Director of Aboriginal Victoria, Jason Misfud, who tweeted that the deputy CHO's post was "100% correct".

Amidst the chaos of social media commentary, Mr Lowe says the conversation reflects the level of understanding of the Australia's shared history. 

"We have to ask ourselves why is it divisive in this country in 2020 to say something like that? We're quite comfortable speaking about other truths within Australia, but not the actual truth of what happened to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population here," he said.

History of devastation

Health experts and social researchers have also weighed in on the debate online, giving timely reminders of the impacts of colonisation. 

While Cook is celebrated as 'discovering' Australia and setting foot on the east coast in 1770, the introduction of European diseases is generally accepted as not occurring until the invasion of the 'First Fleet' in 1788 and the establishment of the British colony of New South Wales. 

Irrespective of the debate surrounding the official commencement of British occupation of the continent of Australia, Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University, told NITV News it is important to consider the parallels between the effects of COVID-19 and colonisation.

"The reality is that while the coronavirus is a contemporary and deadly crisis, colonisation in Australia has been brutal and the effects enduring," she said.

"The fact is that the moment colonists set foot here, First Nations Australians experienced devastating impacts from frontier violence, massacres, dispossession, racism, and the introduction of viruses never before experienced.

"The impact of colonisation resulted in a swift decline of the First Nations population, in the order of around 40 per cent in the first few years, according to one estimate.

"Small pox and chicken pox were introduced by the colonists and the germs spread faster than the physical colonial frontiers, sweeping the continent like an invisible yet violent frontier."

Worimi man, John Maynard, who is the Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle, recently marked the 250th commemoration with his own article.

In 'An Honest Reckoning with Captain Cook's Legacy," Professor Maynard wrote about his high regard for Cook as a navigator and cartographer, while including this insight:

The impact of 1770 has never eased for Aboriginal people. It was a collision of catastrophic proportions. The whole impact of 1788 – of invasion, dispossession, cultural destruction, occupation onto assimilation, segregation – all of these things that came after 1770.

Outrage from the top

Despite the federal government centring it's modern approach to Indigenous Affairs around the importance of truth-telling and reconciliation, the PM on Friday morning labelled Dr van Dieman's twitter post, "very disappointing"

"She clearly wouldn't get the job as chief historian," Mr Morrison told Alan Jones on radio station 2GB.

"People should stick to their day jobs."

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton made a somewhat rare appearance to voice his own opposition to the tweet, calling for the immediate resignation of Dr van Diemen.

Some social media users in turn criticised Mr Dutton for the handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which after being allowed to dock in Sydney's Circular Quay precinct in early March, later emerged as the single biggest source of COVID-19 infections in Australia, accounting for more than 500 infections and five deaths.

Others pointed out the hypocrisy of some news media outlets that recently championed the notion of 'freedom of speech' on behalf of a religious sports star, now condemning Dr van Dieman for tweeting her personal beliefs.

Other public figures who have been at the centre of a similar pile-on, such as writer and social commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied, sent through advice for those targeting Dr van Diemen.

The Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, declined to criticise the Deputy CHO during a scheduled press conference to discuss the state's ongoing response to the coronavirus on Friday.

"I don't believe that's the most important issue today. My priorities are very clear and that's not changing," he said.

"I've got no comment to make on any member of the public health team other than, 'thank you for the work you are doing because it is making a massive difference.'"

Victorian Supreme Court prima facie finds state in breach of prisoner's rights
In a landmark decision on Friday, the Supreme Court of Victoria has found that the state government prima facie breached its duty of care to prisoners amid the COVID-19 pandemic, giving renewed hope to advocates for the immediate release of Indigenous prisoners.