Thousands expected to protest Australia Day despite COVID-19 concerns

Protesters gather on Australia Day, demanding that the country’s national day be changed, as the date marks the arrival of Britain’s first fleet and subsequent colonisation of indigenous Australians, at a rally in Sydney, Australia, January 26, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Thousands of people were expected to defy public health concerns and protest against the mistreatment of Australia’s Indigenous people as the country marked its national day on Tuesday on the anniversary of the arrival of the British First Fleet in 1788.

For many Indigenous Australians, who trace their lineage on the continent back 50,000 years, the Australia Day holiday is known as Invasion Day symbolising the destruction of their cultures by European settlers.

In Sydney, Indigenous groups have called for protests to demand the national day be changed, although state health officials have refused to make an exemption to social distancing rules to allow for crowds of more than 500 people.

Television footage showed protesters gathering early on Tuesday in small groups to comply with the limits. Police have warned protesters could face fines and imprisonment for breaching public health orders designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In Melbourne, rally organisers said protesters would be sorted into groups of 100 people with a 10-metre (30 foot) distance between each to comply with social distancing rules.

While thousands of people flocked to beaches and picnic spots around the country to celebrate the national day, many official events were cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions.

Australia has fared better than most other developed economies in the pandemic, with just under 28,800 cases and 909 deaths, mostly in Victoria state. Victoria recorded its 20th straight day on Tuesday with no local transmission.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia Day represents how far the country has come since the First Fleet arrived.

“There is no escaping or cancelling this fact,” Morrison said at a ceremony in Canberra. “For better and worse, it was the moment where the journey to our modern nation began.”