Eerie Q&A image sums up virus crisis
Every Monday night, the studio for ABC's Q&A program is packed with hundreds of audience members observing the panel discussion and asking questions.
Monday night's coronavirus special saw the most questions ever put to the show in its 12-year history.
But the audience was sparsely populated, with a gap of a few chairs between every seated member.
Standing in front of the scattered crowd at the beginning of the show, host Hamish MacDonald explained: "In the studio tonight, this is what social distancing looks like.
"This is not the usual 200 or 300 people. Instead, there are a few individuals who will ask some of tonight's questions. They're all at least 1.5 metres away from each other which is following the protocols."
The one-and-a-half-metre distance of the audience members is a reference to the government's "social-distancing" guidelines, which also advised Australians to stop shaking hands.
Social media users described the audience setting as "eerie" and "surreal", with some saying it perfectly captured the current climate as the virus spreads across the nation.
GOVERNMENT SLAMMED OVER SLOW RESPONSE
Emotions ran high on tonight's episode, with the Morrison government accused of lacking transparency and responding too slowly to the coronavirus outbreak.
Neither Prime Minister Scott Morrison nor Health Minister Greg Hunt appeared on the program, leaving Minister for Aged Care Senator Richard Colbeck to take the heat.
Asked about the federal government's transparency on the number of people the virus could affect, UNSW Adjunct Professor and Strategic Health Policy Adviser Bill Bowtell said honest and open communication had been in "remarkably short supply".
"Wouldn't that create panic? That's the concern," responded Senator Colbeck.
"The panic is already out there," said Prof Bowtell. "Have you been to the supermarket shelves? Have you seen the security guards who have to allocate and ration toilet paper and every other thing that's no longer on the shelves? The panic is there because of the lies and the misinformation that have been circulating in the Australian community for weeks and weeks."
Prof Bowtell then asked the Senator how many test kits there are in Australia.
He couldn't answer, but defended the government's communications on the outbreak.
"I can't tell Bill tonight how many test kits there are available. It is public knowledge, though, that there is a shortage of some of the chemicals that go to making those up," Senator Colbeck said. "That's one of the reasons that we've said and we've said this publicly too, is we wanted the people who have the prerequisites for being tested to be the ones that get tested.
"We were talking earlier tonight about the worried well who might have a tickle in their throat, they might have a headache, they might have a cough, but they don't have the prerequisites for being tested, and yet they're turning up at the clinics, because they're worried.
"That goes to some of the other misinformation that's been put around in the community. We need to make sure that the messages come from a single source of truth."
Later, when Senator Colbeck said the government had "taken actions to try and slow down the growth of the virus", Prof Bowtell interjected, saying: "Rubbish."
He accused the federal government of moving too late to restrict travel and put out an information campaign.
"You've had, since the beginning of January to do this," Prof Bowtell said. "And when the situation got serious in Taiwan, they created a national unified command I think on January 20. Eight weeks ago.
"Nothing like that was done here. There was no public education campaign. There was no mobilisation of the people. The state governments did not sanitise and disinfect the transport systems. And people would go around saying that as recently as on Friday your PM was saying nothing to see here. Social distancing next week. Everybody go out and it's not a problem."
Other panel members agreed that the government had launched its advertising too late.
While Senator Colbeck insisted there was a consistent message, former AMA president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal said it should have come much sooner.
Shadow Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher agreed. "It's been too late, Hamish," she said. "And now the government is having to deal … everyone is having to deal with the level of anxiety and fear in the community that could have and should have been dealt with better by earlier access to information, so that you build trust."
"If you don't have trust, then you've got real problems."