Response to Panama vs a global pandemic – different…but same?

A global pandemic may seem a complete world away from a disease that threatens Australia’s banana industry. However, on-farm responses by banana growers’ to COVID, compared to efforts to continue to control Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4), have some distinct parallels. 

By Sonia Campbell

When COVID-19 gripped the globe earlier this year, it was – and continues to be – an unprecedented crisis no Australian in the present day has experienced before. 

For banana growers who have biosecurity protocols in place to keep diseases such as Panama tropical race 4 (TR4) at bay, unwittingly their responses to COVID – to keep staff safe from infection and ultimately keep their farms running viably – have been similar in many ways. 

South Johnstone banana grower and former Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) chair Doug Phillips recently sat down with Australian Bananas magazine to consider this interesting analogy. 

“Certainly, if you look at the responses in general (to TR4 and COVID-19) the ‘principals’ are almost identical. Different in application, but in principle the same,” Mr Phillips said. 

“You talk about early identification? Where you find it (Panama and COVID), you go into strict containment and controlled movement. 

“If you talk about early identification? With TR4 we have risked-based surveying of farms, the same way we do (in the community) with COVID 19. The trace forward, trace back, that’s a critical part of that risk identification, with both COVID and TR4. 

So really the principles of what we are trying to achieve with COVID, as opposed to what we are doing with TR4 are the same.” 

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) Team Leader of Banana Production Systems, Stewart Lindsay believes those growers with good biosecurity protocols in place pre-COVID were at an advantage when it came to responding to the pandemic on farm.

He said these growers were accustomed to constant checks and balances, including disseminating information to their workforces quickly in times of need.

“I think those people who put their biosecurity in place (for TR4), bit by bit, early on, it’s about working with people. And, if you have systems in place, then people almost develop that as a habit,” Mr Lindsay said.

“So, similarly with COVID, you’re reinforcing new behaviours. But it does take time to become second nature, because you’re asking people to change the habits of a lifetime.”

Mr Lindsay agreed with Mr Phillips that there were many parallels between industry’s response to TR4 and the pandemic.

“Neither disease can actively seek out a suitable host, they both rely on distribution by other means. Both also have a period without obvious symptoms when they can be moved into close proximity of other hosts and infect them, so when you find infected hosts (people or plants) you are seeing the disease distribution in the past, rather than where it is right now,” he said.

“That’s why good quarantine practices have to assume that everywhere and everyone else is infected, and have practices that treat people and farms as if they are.

“So when you think about it, the (COVID) virus is not making the pandemic, we are. It’s human behaviour that decides whether there is a second wave.

“It’s the same with any disease (of) plant, animal or whatever. If you don’t have an effective control, then quarantine is your only control, and that’s why Panama and COVID are the same.

Mr Lindsay also drew comparisons between ‘flattening the curve’ of COVID-19 and managing infected farms.

“With COVID we’re saying flatten the curve by doing the things that mean you are not infecting anyone else. That’s really what managing these infected farms with Panama is effectively trying to achieve,” Mr Lindsay said.

“If we had done nothing, the chance of Panama spreading to other farms and other districts would
have been much higher, so by locking down farms and imposing conditions, including destroying
infected plants, that’s achieving that flattening of the curve that everyone talks about with COVID.”

Mr Phillips believed there were other benefits of on-farm responses to both COVID and TR4.

“All of the measures that have been introduced for COVID such as increased hand washing and
increased social distancing, are going to have a positive influence on the infection rates of other diseases, like influenza and other things like that, in the same way that good biosecurity practices bring about additional positive outcomes.

“If you are more structured in your planting material and you’re using clean planting material, you’re not spreading other things through your farm. You’re not potentially importing nematodes, you are not importing other diseases and you’re not spreading other things through your farm,” Mr Phillips said.

“So you sit down and start to list the benefits (of the responses to TR4 and COVID), and you see
similarities there as well.”