opinion

Pictures of Bondi Beach will go down in history. Let's tell the right story.

What happened at Bondi Beach on Friday afternoon will go down as a defining moment in Australian history.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the history books will say, when the world was experiencing the largest quarantine known to humankind, tens of thousands of Australians decided to gather at Bondi Beach.

And that story is true. Partly.

Lifeguards said Friday’s crowds rivalled those normally seen on New Year’s Day. Blue skies and temperatures reaching 33 degrees attracted swarms of people, and photographs of the mass gathering were published all around the world.

The images received near-universal condemnation. How could this have happened? people asked. Cases of the coronavirus, an infection twice as contagious as the flu and at least 10 times as deadly, had surged well past a quarter of a million people by Friday afternoon. Australia’s own tally was (and still is) increasing exponentially by the day. There was no shortage of information.

WATCH: Your Covid-19 questions answered. Post continues below. 

And so it was decided that the people who chose to go to Bondi Beach on a Friday afternoon in March were stupid and selfish and mustn’t care about the community at large. We projected onto them wicked thoughts, decrying Australia’s “she’ll be right” attitude, while yelling into our echo chambers that we were well on the road to becoming the next Italy, a country that now has almost 60,000 cases of the coronavirus, and 5,476 casualties.

But that’s not the story history ought to tell.

What we saw on Bondi Beach wasn’t defiance. It was confusion.

A single image of a packed Bondi Beach doesn’t tell you what happened in the week that preceded it.

It doesn’t tell you that most Australians were still expected to go to work, and their children still expected to go to school, travelling on public transport there and back.

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It doesn’t tell you that a cruise ship docked in Sydney, and 2,647 passengers disembarked and walked straight out into the community.

It doesn’t tell you that less than a week before, our Prime Minister was planning on attending a rugby league game with tens of thousands of people, because his “beloved Sharks” were playing.

It doesn’t tell you that just eight days ago, our Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy announced to the Australian public that shaking hands and going to the gym were “low risk”.

It doesn’t tell you that Australia has no clear system by which to disseminate critical information to its community. While the Singaporean government sends alerts to people through Whatsapp, and Japan has had clear public messaging about hygiene since early February, Australia has managed neither. The first ad campaign encouraging Australians to wash their hands was released just one week ago.

Imagine for a moment that – as directed by the government – you went to work every day this week. Your colleague sat barely a metre from you, because that’s how your city office is designed. Your child went to school with hundreds of other kids, with not enough soap, and all social distancing rules suspended. You went to the restaurant up the road because it was open and shuffled through an overcrowded supermarket. You squeezed onto the bus and sat in a seat that has probably never been adequately sanitised.

Why wouldn’t you go to Bondi Beach?

The irony of a government scolding people for jumping into the ocean at the end of a week when they had been explicitly directed to go to school and work, thus abandoning all social distancing measures, is mind-boggling.

Educated, well-meaning Australians did not understand the rules by Friday.

There was something about outdoor spaces and 500 people, the average person probably knew, but schools and shopping centres directly contradicted that measure so it must not be that important.

And then we were told no more than 100 people in an indoor space, but every pub looked to be overflowing and no one seemed to be intervening.

We were instructed to follow a four square metre rule for inside gatherings, but again there were several exceptions including public transport, and how on earth does the average person know what four square metres even looks like?

The New South Wales police and emergency services minister David Elliot said, “What we saw this morning at Bondi Beach was the most irresponsible behaviour of individuals that we’ve seen so far… We cannot have an area where more than 500 people are gathered.”

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Are politicians under the impression that tens of thousands of Australians decided, in unison, to arrive at Bondi Beach on Friday afternoon? How was anyone to know how packed or empty the beach would be?

And now we are a country being blamed for our own lockdown.

“If the community does not comply with the regulations and the health warnings then this is going to become the new norm,” Elliot continued.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, where hosts Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens discuss the Bondi Beach incident.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed Elliot’s sentiments, addressing the Australian public with exasperation: “We now need to take action because we cannot have the confidence as a group of leaders that the social distancing guidelines and rules that we have put in place will be followed to the level of compliance that we require to flatten the curve and slow the spread and save lives.”

He added, “The health advice has been clear.”

But it hasn’t.

States are now contradicting directives by the federal government. Schools will remain open but parents are being instructed not to send their children. Don’t “panic” buy, but stock up on two weeks’ worth of essentials, and don’t leave your house if it can be avoided, but only ever purchase what you need for right now. Practise social distancing but support local businesses.

We are a community suffering from decision fatigue who just wants an answer to the question: “What am I meant to do?”

On Friday afternoon, tens of thousands of Australians chose to go to Bondi Beach. Perhaps if they had access to all the information in the world, they’d have made a different decision.

But at a time of crisis, with the Prime Minister saying that 2020 will be “the toughest year of our lives”, let’s offer each other the benefit of the doubt.

The viral images of a crowded beach were not evidence of widespread selfishness. Or stupidity.

They provided a snapshot of Australia’s confusion.

And that’s how we ought to remember the afternoon of March 20, 2020, when Australians swarmed our most iconic beach.

Image: Social.

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