The social events that fuelled the Covid-19 outbreak

Experts say ‘singing and dancing’ have helped spread the virus

Crowds at Cheltenham Racecourse on 10 March
(Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Countless people unwittingly spread the new coronavirus at mass social gatherings worldwide before lockdowns came into force, according to academics studying how the pandemic began.

“A hundred days after a Chinese government website announced the discovery of a ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’, it has become clearer that the dynamics behind the virus’s rapid expansion across the globe has relied heavily on such ‘cluster effects’,” reports The Guardian.

“Wherever there was singing and dancing, the virus spread more rapidly,” says Professor Hendrik Streeck, a virologist at the University of Bonn who is leading a “Covid-19 case cluster study” in Heinsberg - described as Germany’s Wuhan.

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“Mass events are a perfect opportunity for the virus, as people meet total strangers,” adds Niki Popper, a mathematician at Vienna’s Technical University who is developing a simulation to better predict the future development of the pandemic.


Heinsberg, a district in western Germany that borders the Netherlands, is “something like a portal into the near future”, says The Times. “The full force of the coronavirus hit the district earlier and harder than any other part of Germany.”

Hundreds of people were infected after attending the annual Langbroker Dicke Flaa carnival parade in the region’s villages of Langbroich and Harzelt on 15 February.

“Beer and wine flowed aplenty as approximately 350 adults in fancy dress locked arms on long wooden benches and swayed to the rhythm of music provided by a live band,” reports The Guardian.

A 47-year-old man who performed in a ballet at the carnival subsequently became the first person in Germany admitted to intensive care with the infection.

Mardi Gras

New Orleans is famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations, but the 2020 festivities are believed to have been the catalyst for the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Louisiana city.

Many of the city’s 400,000 residents and an additional 1.4 million tourists mingled, ate and drank or took part in parades at the carnival on 25 February.

By 22 March, 70% of Louisiana state’s coronavirus cases were in New Orleans, and the mayor was forced to order residents to stay at home, closing all schools and non-essential businesses.

“There was not a single suggestion by anyone – a doctor, a scientist, a political figure – that we needed to cancel Mardi Gras,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards told CNN’s State of the Union talk show last week.

However, the Daily Mail reports that US governors had been briefed on 9 February by members of the national coronavirus task force about the growing threat, at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting.

“Mardi Gras was the perfect storm, it provided the perfect conditions for the spread of this virus,” said Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division.

“We shared cups. We shared each other’s space in the crowds. People were in close contact catching [strings of] beads. It is now clear that people also caught coronavirus.”

Bondi Beach

At least 30 Australians and foreign backpackers were diagnosed with the Covid-19 coronavirus after attending a dance party at Bondi Beach’s Bucket List venue on 15 March.

The gathering took place before Australia banned events of more than 500 people, “when Australia’s prime minister was urging people not to gather in large numbers but also saying he would go to a football game”, reports The Guardian.

Many of those who attended the “Back to Boogie Wonderland – Tropicana” event were staying in local backpacker hostels with dorm rooms and shared facilities.

Days later, on 20 March, the party organisers posted a message on Facebook that said: “We have just been informed that a possible attendee from our last event at the bucket list might be positive to the Covid-19, this is NOT confirmed yet, but we want to do the right thing here and keep you aware and informed.”

The area around Bondi has since been identified as a coronavirus hotspot.


In late February, around 2,500 worshippers gathered at the Porte Ouverte Christian church in Alsace, eastern France, for a week of fasting and prayer.

“During the five days, the worshippers greeted each other, pecked each other on the cheeks, and held hands, sometimes while praying during the services,” church spokesperson Nathalie Schnoebelen said afterwards.

The event took place a month before France ordered a nationwide lockdown, reports The Telegraph.

“Contrary to what certain politicians have said, we didn’t ignore the basic rules because at the time there were not any,” Schnoebelen added.

“The chain of contamination [in the region] clearly started at the meeting of the Lent week of the ‘Porte Ouverte Chretienne’... we can expect new cases in coming hours,” Christophe Lannelongue, head of the eastern France health agency, warned last week.

Among those who have already tested positive for the new coronavirus are 18 people from the family of the church’s main pastor, Samuel Peterschmit.

“Other worshippers returned to cities and towns across France - Orleans, Besancon, Saint-Lo, Belfort, Dijon, Macon, Briancon, Paris. By 8 March, around 100 coronavirus cases had been linked to the church prayer week,” says The Guardian.

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Cheltenham Festival

Experts believe that the 250,000 people who attended the Cheltenham Festival in Gloucestershire in March may have played a major part in the spread of the virus across the UK.

Andrew Parker Bowles, former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, has since tested positive and says that he “probably got it on the Wednesday or Friday I attended Cheltenham”, reports The Times.

The decision to go ahead with the horse racing meet prompted much criticism at the time, with Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, telling the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think it is surprising and concerning that we’re not doing any of it at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage [in the outbreak] that Italy is at.”

Labour’s shadow sports minister, Catherine West, has also asked why the event was allowed to take place, reports the Derbyshire Times.

“Serious questions need to be asked about whether it was appropriate to have a mass gathering of tens of thousands of people while the rest of Europe were enacting social distancing and banning mass gatherings,” said West.

The festival finished just three days before the UK government introduced a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people.

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