SYDNEY—As Tucker Carlson launches into unhinged tirades about Australia’s “destructive” and “crazy” anti-COVID measures, a virus outbreak linked to a violent anti-vaccine riot is ripping through the Australian city of Melbourne, infecting at least 20 people so far, including a baby.
Disgruntled over vaccine mandates, a mob of rioters blockaded the headquarters of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)—one of the most powerful workers’ unions in the southern hemisphere—late last month. Since the clash, at least five union officials have tested positive for COVID. Another 126 people became “primary close contacts,” and, according to branch secretary John Setka, the disease has spread to family members.
“One of the members, 14 in his family and counting have got it,” Setka, who labeled the rioters as “drunken, fascist, un-Australian morons,” told Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s public broadcaster, on Wednesday morning. “We have got a case of a four-month-old toddler who has got it. Young children, grandparents. It is just absolutely terrible. Some of them are seriously unwell.”
A news cameraman who covered the angry protests, framed around a vehement opposition to a vaccine mandate in the construction industry, has also tested positive.
A CFMEU Victoria/Tasmania branch official who was not authorized to speak publicly told The Daily Beast the rioters were “fuckin' grubs” and put union members and their families in real danger.
“The whole reason we exist is to keep our members safe and these fuckin' grubs have come here trying to start trouble, they’ve spread the virus and now innocent people have been caught up in it,” he said. “And they’re being egged on by the spivs in the conservative media who have always hated the unions because it serves two of their purposes: Spreading lies and putting the union in a difficult position.”
The superspreader demonstration ignited a series of other clashes that were co-opted by networks seeking to sow disinformation and discord. In Australia, where Rupert Murdoch controls a significant portion of the traditional media landscape, the groups have received validation from parts of the Sky News Australia network. The symbiosis was born in early August when YouTube banned the pay-television broadcaster for several days and permanently removed some of its content because the videos violated the tech giant’s medical misinformation policies.
For the past few days, at least, there has been a bizarre, real-world cross-pollination between American and Australian conspiracy elements. A week ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a boat builders’ conference that he wasn't sure whether Australia is “freer than communist China right now.” “I don’t know. The fact that’s even a question tells you something’s gone dramatically off the rails,” he said at the convention in Tampa.
Two days ago, so-called “freedom” marchers in New York ended their demonstration outside the Australian consulate in Midtown where they announced they were going to “hold the line for Australia” and “save” the country.
The first round of protests in Melbourne, attended by a person infected with the deadly Delta variant of the pathogen, contained a contingent of aggrieved construction workers and union members but was largely infiltrated by conspiracy theorists, right-wing agitators, and fringe, anti-vaccine elements of the wellness industry.
The Daily Beast has been told by a state government official that, of the 126 close contacts identified within the union, 70 percent have so far tested negative for COVID-19. But in a state now experiencing its worst outbreak since the pandemic began 20 months ago, vaccination rates are still not at levels that will contain the spread. By Wednesday, only about 54 percent of the population aged 16 and over had received both doses of the vaccine.
Construction boss Setka told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the massive spike in Victorian case numbers to 1,763 in a single day on Tuesday—almost 2.5 times the peak of the worst wave in the state last year—could “definitely” be linked to the marchers. “And it’s just so irresponsible,” he said. “This could lead to people dying.”
An outlaw motorcycle gang member known as “The Destroyer” who attended the union office protest revealed earlier this week on his Instagram account that he spent time in intensive care after contracting the virus. “Just got out of ICU. COVID is real,” he wrote.
This week, Australian journalist Sharri Markson launched a book about the purported origins of the virus in a Wuhan lab with Fox News host Tucker Carlson and her colleague from Sky News, Chris Kenny. Toward the end of the event, Carlson said it was courageous English people who did more than anyone else to change the world.
“And to see their descendants—which is us. You, me, Canada, New Zealand—display the spirit of obedience and cravenness. I am ashamed to watch it,” he said. “Where are the fiercely independent Americans? Where the hell are the people who founded the country? Where are their great-grandchildren? Hiding indoors because of a virus? Where are the men?”
Chris Kenny, who is also a columnist with News Corporation’s The Australian newspaper, said in response, “Thank you for calling it out, Tucker Carlson. I think you’re absolutely right.”
Despite the urgent “Save Australia!” chants that echoed through the streets of New York City this week, Australians have been quite adept at saving themselves once the federal government finally boosted vaccine supplies from the middle of the year. The two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, together with the nation’s capital territory, have been recording first-dose vaccination levels higher than almost anywhere else in the world.
On Wednesday, NSW reached the milestone of 70 percent double-dose vaccinations among those aged over 16.