Coronavirus risk grows for commuters and staff unsure of safety protocols

Commuters at Central Station in Sydney. Source: Christa Nicola.

Commuters and transport workers are being put at risk by a lack of information about how to safeguard against coronavirus, unions, passengers and staff claim.

Confusion is growing among companies and regulating bodies in Australia including at Qantas, NSW Rail and NSW Health, while the lethal coronavirus, dubbed C0VID-19, escalates.

Workers on train, tram, bus and ferry services and at Australian airports have no apparent protocols for customer protection or self protection the Transport Workers Union said.

TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen told Hatch: “Cabin crew, airlines cleaners, caterers, baggage and ramp workers and airport security personnel at the frontline have the right to go to work, be safe and return to their families afterwards without concerns that they are spreading a deadly virus.”

Medical staff await commuters from Wuhan at Sydney International Airport. Source: Hatch Macleay

The TWU added it is concerned by the lack of training and protection which may put staff members at risk in both their health and jobs.

Last week an elected representative for health and safety at Qantas was told to step down after alerting staff of their lawful rights while other staff members were given warnings.

Several days before workers had been forced to board an aircraft from Wuhan to strip it of catering and linen with just masks and gloves, causing concern among airport staff.

“We are very concerned that airport workers on the frontline of this virus outbreak are being threatened, intimidated and stood down from their jobs rather than being supported and given all the protections they need,” added Mr Olsen.

A Chinese passenger who arrived in Sydney from China on January 31 told Hatch she left the airport in Sydney as usual with no testing or quarantine and was one of the only ones wearing a mask.

“I flew from Shanghai and your body temperature is measured at the entrance of each city and everyone is wearing masks”, she said.

“My cousin had been to Hubei Province and arrived back on January 18 to his hometown of Nanjing. He was unable to leave his house for 14 days, his body temperature was measured everyday and employees from the property management bought his groceries. In China this is taken very seriously.

“I stayed home when I arrived in Sydney and self quarantined as no one informed me of anything.”

Since the coronavirus has been in Australia racially fueled incidents on buses and trains have also increased against ‘Chinese looking people’.

“Staff on the frontline at airports are scared and unsure of their safety,” a baggage handler at Sydney Airport, who wished to remain anonymous, told Hatch.

“People are reluctant to go near Chinese people, both staff and passengers.”

According to the Guardian there was an incident on a train in Sydney two weeks ago where a young Asian-Australian mother with her child was being yelled at and told “to stand in the corner and stop spreading viruses”. The young women later stated she had never even been to China.

The growing paranoia is fueling the demand for face masks with some chemists and suppliers selling out.

Sign at a chemist on Anzac Parade, Kingsford, in Sydney. Source: Martin Newman.

Infectious disease specialist Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, told Hatch: “There have been occasions in history when fear of an outbreak has led to certain groups being targeted unreasonably.

“When an outbreak with an unknown infection occurs, people are afraid, but they will be more afraid if they have no idea what is going on, and feel they can do nothing.

“If, however, they can identify a source of infection that they can isolate or quarantine, it gives a sense of accomplishment that they are actually doing something without being idle and helpless, and at the same time, they also feel that they are containing the outbreak.”

Commuters in Sydney are experiencing similar anxiety, with some saying they don’t dare cough or sneeze because of the reaction it gets.

Last Friday a platform was shut at Central Station when a man informed staff he had recently arrived from China. According to NSW Police the man was neither feeling unwell nor showing any symptoms.

The fact police and the paramedics were called and he was checked over, cleared and taken to hospital as a precaution, underlines the sometime over-the-top level of caution around the virus.

The Wuhan coronavirus under the microscope. Source: Flickr/Ben (busy)

When we asked Transport for NSW for details of their own safety protocols for the coronavirus, a spokesperson simply directed us to the NSW Health website.

According to the World Health Organization there are currently 64,510 confirmed cases and 1,383 deaths. Australia has 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and no deaths.

Dr Sanjaya Senanyake added: “The coronavirus is far less deadly than other outbreaks, however it seems to be more infectious than MERS and SARS, eclipsing the total number of cases of SARS in a mere eight weeks. It is probably less infectious than influenza though.”

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