Drought sidelined by 'coronavirus express'

Drought sidelined by 'coronavirus express'

Opinion
Peter Austin says our news bulletins now carry disturbing images redolent of the Depression years, of jobless hordes queuing up at Centrelink offices.

Peter Austin says our news bulletins now carry disturbing images redolent of the Depression years, of jobless hordes queuing up at Centrelink offices.

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Right now, coronavirus is the only game in town - certainly the only game in Canberra.

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First it was the drought, until that was swept off the news headlines by the bushfire crisis, and now they've both been comprehensively trumped by the coronavirus pandemic and its local fallout.

It's only a few months ago that public-spirited individuals were giving generously to drought appeals, and drought relief was a high priority of state and federal governments.

Then came the bushfires, and suddenly, instead of our news bulletins serving up confronting images of hungry stock and dry river beds, we were seeing coastal holidaymakers cowering on beaches against an apocalyptic backdrop of smoke, flame and destruction.

When it was all over, the tally of damage in NSW ran to 25 deaths, nearly 2500 homes lost, along with forest and farmland equivalent in scale to more than three-quarters of Tasmania's land area.

Suddenly the drought was yesterday's crisis, as new funding campaigns were launched to raise money for dispossessed bushfire victims. Governments likewise changed their focus priorities.

But then, out of nowhere (because who, previously, had ever heard of Wuhan Province in China?), came a new virus epidemic which in a few short weeks has turned not just Australia, but the world upside down.

Our news bulletins now carry disturbing images redolent of the Depression years, of jobless hordes queuing up at Centrelink offices, and of eerily deserted streets, shops, pubs and sportsgrounds.

And yet, as readers of this paper know only too well, the drought is very much still with us, despite the veneer of green that has brought hope - but not yet bankable relief - to many areas.

More than 90 per cent of the state is still officially drought affected, haysheds and silos are empty, sheep and cattle numbers are at historic lows, and most of the dams that underpin our irrigation areas are still sitting at around 10pc or less.

But right now, coronavirus is the only game in town - certainly the only game in Canberra - and until the rate of new infections shows signs of abating, that's how things will be.

I'm sure many readers will, like me, find similarities between the coronavirus epidemic and the ovine Johne's disease (OJD) crisis that nearly destroyed our sheep industry 20 years ago.

As with OJD, in coronavirus we have a potentially lethal disease that can infect and be transmitted through a population without clinical symptoms, only revealing its presence through individual testing.

A vaccine will be the only solution, but it is some way off. In the meantime, as with OJD, the draconian measures being adopted in a heroic attempt to contain the disease could well do more lasting damage than the disease itself.

At least we all still need to eat, so down on the farm, life will go on.

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