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Was There A Silver Lining To Australia’s 2020 Bush Fires?

It’s been a terrible time for the whole world lately!

Australia was knocked to it’s knees by one of the worst bushfire seasons in our recorded history then, before we could get up, COVID-19 knocked us down again.

Australia is no stranger to bush fires. Every year we have bushfires but some years stand out as worse than usual for various reasons.

In the 1974/75 bushfire season fire swept through Central Australia. The middle of Australia is arid and inhospitable so it is home to very few people. Because of that those fires killed just three (3) people even though one hundred and seventeen MILLION (117,000,000) hectares of land was burned.

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, by contrast, burned 450,000 hectares of land and took 173 lives. Those were just two of the more memorable bushfire seasons Australia has experienced.

In comparison, the recent 2019-2020 bushfires, consumed 18,736,070 hectares of densely populated land, killed 34 people outright and over 400 more lives were lost to smoke related damage after the fires passed.

What nobody was prepared for, however, was what the fires did to our wildlife. Authorities don’t know how many animals were lost but they are certain it was “billions” and that estimate only refers to larger animals like sheep, cattle, koala’s, kangaroos and so on. The figure doesn’t include lizards, insects, and other smaller life forms whose numbers are harder to estimate.

What also marks these fires as among the worst was the ferocity of the fires, the level of pollution they caused, and the damage they did to our economy.

The Black Summer fires were the worst I can remember because the air quality got so bad you could smell the smoke no matter where you were. I often found myself coughing because of the smoke and you could smell smoke even when you were inside with all the doors and windows closed.

I was around for the 74/75 and 2009 fires and the only impact those fires had on me personally was my distress at seeing the images and hearing the news about what people were going through. I didn’t smell any smoke or suffer any coughing fits during either of those fires.

According to an ABC news report the European Union’s Earth Observation Program reported that the Australian 2019-2020 bushfires emitted 434 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The result of that was a lot of people suffered from smoke inhalation. The ABC reported that, in an Australian National University (ANU) poll, conducted in January 2020, researchers found 11.3 million Australian adults, or 57 per cent of the Australian adult population, were physically affected by smoke from the bushfires. I was one of them.

Airports were closed at times because of smoke, sporting events had to be cancelled, and the world saw many of Australia’s iconic and much loved animals, such as the Koala, burnt and suffering. The image of Australia as a safe international tourism destination was badly shaken. The world was watching Australia burn and the result was a dual reaction.

On one hand the world donated generously to bushfire funds to aid Australia in it’s time of need and we are, and will always be, extremely thankful for that support. On the other hand, tourism died. Tourists cancelled bookings all over Australia, even in areas untouched by fire, and some countries even went so far as to put Australia on a travel watch warning. Potential tourists were advised to “exercise increased caution” over bushfire and smoke hazards when considering coming here.

People suffered, and they are still suffering because of those fires, but now we have COVID-19 to worry about.

Australia’s death toll, so far, is just 100 people.

That is enviable and our politicians are swift to claim the credit for it but I don’t believe it was politicians who saved Australian lives. I’m pretty sure it is thanks to the fires that polluted our air and made us an undesirable place to go for those few months.

The fires began here in June 2019 and got worse and worse until they peaked in December 2019 and January 2020. COVID-19 came to our attention in December 2019 but continued to spread before being taken seriously by China in February 2020 when they shut down Wuhan and we all sat up and took notice.

It seems to me that, during the months when the virus was quietly spreading because nobody was taking it seriously, Australia was covered in a cloud of acrid smoke and 4.5 billion dollars worth of tourists cancelled their visits to Australia. I think we can thank those fires for driving those tourists, along with any viruses they may have been carrying, away from Australia. A single cruise ship has caused more than 20 percent of Australia’s death toll at this point. Imagine if all the tourists that cancelled their bookings had come during those months when COVID-19 was silently spreading throughout the world while Australia was burning. What would our death toll have been then?

Australia is a popular tourist destination. We are particularly popular with the Chinese. China is, in fact, the largest source country for tourists to Australia with more than 1.3 million of them coming to visit every year.

There is no way to know for sure, of course, but I strongly believe Australia’s Covid 19 death toll would be as high as, perhaps even higher than, the losses suffered by other popular tourist destinations such as America, Europe, and the UK if not for our “Black Summer” fires.

I’m not saying the bush fires were a good thing. I’m just wondering if, perhaps, they might have been the lesser of two evils?

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