The local government on Christmas Island has moved to try to reassure concerned residents they will be safe from infection after more than 200 Australians brought home from the coronavirus centre of Wuhan were quarantined on the island.
- The Australians quarantined on Christmas Island will stay there for two weeks
- Local residents have been told they should not worry about exposure to the virus
- But authorities fear the island’s reputation and tourism potential will suffer
About 240 Australian citizens and permanent residents were flown out of Wuhan on an evacuation flight on Monday, including 84 children under 16 and five infants under two.
They were first brought to the Australian mainland but then flown on smaller planes to Christmas Island, where they are expected to spend two weeks at a repurposed immigration detention facility.
Fear remains in local community
Christmas Island Shire President Gordon Thomson said local authorities had next to no warning about the evacuation and, while there had been more communication in recent days, the Commonwealth had not done enough to allay fears held by many on the island.
Mr Thomson said a lot of the messaging put forward had been posted online and on social media, but this had not reached many of those on the island who do not have regular or reliable internet access, if they used it all.
He said there had also been a lack of information made readily accessible for people of different language groups, considering English was the first language of less than a third of the Christmas Island population.
“Most of the people who don’t have English or very strong English are getting no real information — it’s all conjecture and there’s no reassurance in that, it’s usually alarm,” he said.
Island administrator Natasha Griggs told Christmas Island residents via a Facebook post that the evacuees would be kept completely separate from the community while they were quarantined.
“Those quarantined will not be moving around the island or accessing any services — including health services — used by Christmas Island residents or visitors,” she wrote in the public post.
“There will be no impact on services for the community.”
She also said medical staff and other personnel who were in direct contact with evacuees would not be residing in the broader community during the quarantine period.
Christmas Island ‘working very well’: PM
A group of 35 more Australians who have been flown out of Wuhan on an Air New Zealand flight, due to land at a military base near Auckland this afternoon, will also be transferred to Christmas Island.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Federal Government would coordinate a second and final evacuation flight to bring Australians home.
“We will have another flight going into Wuhan, we are working on that now,” he said.
“The transfer arrangements to Christmas Island are working very well. We have had no presented cases there on Christmas Island at this point.”
Mr Thomson said he too was confident there was minimal risk posed by the Christmas Island operation and said residents should not be concerned about possible exposure to the virus.
But he said he shared the frustrations of many in the community who believed the use of Christmas Island’s detention centre had been motivated more by politics than any health concerns.
“I feel for the people who’ve been confined at the detention centre. They’re far from home, that is a concern,” he said.
“The bad thing is they shouldn’t be here, [they] should be on the mainland.”
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone last week called on the Commonwealth to find a more “humane” solution for repatriating Australians and suggested quarantine could be safely achieved on the mainland.
Dozens of medical professionals along with Australian Border Force officers and Defence personnel are also staying at the detention centre.
The Australian Medical Assistance Team is on standby to treat anyone who develops coronavirus symptoms, but has stated any patients who became critically ill would likely need to be flown to Perth for treatment.
Business as usual, residents say
The immigration detention centre sits about 20 kilometres from the main population centre on the island.
Residents said it had been largely business as usual in spite of the quarantine operation.
Students at the local primary and high school returned from summer holidays on Monday.
The restaurants and bars have remained open, visited by their regulars and the usual smattering of tourists.
Much of the community is also preparing for a large Lunar New Year-related celebration this coming Saturday night.
Christmas Island lies more than 1,500 kilometres from the Australian mainland and is geographically much closer to the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra.
There are two commercial flights from Perth to Christmas Island each week, with the direct journey taking about 4.5 hours.
Concerns bad publicity will ruin tourism
Among tourists the island is popular for its tropical climate and beaches, fishing and seafood, its jungle and a vast array of wildlife, including the famed annual red crab migration.
Mr Thomson has said unfortunately those were not the first things that came to mind for many when they visited Christmas Island.
He said the use of the detention centre to hold asylum seekers had already decimated much of the island’s potential in the tourism sector and now it risked being seen as a home for illness.
“It was an island of incarceration when the refugees were being locked up here and that was ruinous, and when the operation was in full swing tourism just died, because there were no hotel rooms for tourists who might want to come,” he said.
“Although this will be very short term, the publicity for Christmas Island isn’t about it as a tourist destination, it’s about people being incarcerated here for whatever reason.”
Phosphate mining was once the base for the island’s economy and Mr Thomson said the plan had long been for tourism to take centre stage.
But he said he feared that was at risk of becoming less viable.
More on the coronavirus outbreak: