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Lockdowns contribute to rise in Australian drowning deaths during past year

Lockdowns contribute to rise in Australian drowning deaths during past year
September 8, 2021

The Coronavirus pandemic is reported to have been a factor in 20% rise in drowning deaths around Australia in the past year.

Newly released research by leading water safety authorities Royal Life Saving Society - Australia (RLSSA) and Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) has revealed a spike in drowning deaths in the past 12 months, with unfamiliar locations, exhaustion, and interruptions to regular swimming during the COVID-19 pandemic considered key factors.

The report advised that there were 294 drowning deaths in 2020/21 months across Australia’s coastline, inland waterways and pools (including 136 drowning deaths at Australian beaches) while also advising on a 150% increase in beach rescues.

In the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2021 and Surf Life Saving National Coastal Safety Report 2021 released today, two key trends emerged: spikes in drowning deaths immediately following large-scale lockdowns; and more Australians holidaying domestically and swimming in unfamiliar (and often unpatrolled) locations.

Alarmingly men were once again overrepresented in the drowning statistics, accounting for 80%, with alcohol and drugs, risk taking behaviour and over-estimating their ability considered key factors.

Highlighting that further research is needed, RLSSA and SLSA say the findings show that the impacts of COVID on increases in drowning deaths is largely attributable to:

1. Increased drowning risk among Australians visiting unfamiliar locations. COVID has seen more people seeking out remote places to escape crowds, swimming outside of patrolled hours, taking more day trips to isolated beaches, rivers or lakes and holidaying domestically at unfamiliar locations.

2. Increased drowning risk around the home. Complacency can often seep in when people are exhausted from working from home, home-schooling, and restricted time in confined spaces, sometimes resulting in distractions or unsupervised children around water.

3. Australians lack the swimming skills necessary to enjoy the water safely. COVID has seen children missing out on swimming lessons, adults and teenagers with reduced pool access who are no longer swim fit and/or lack confidence in the water leading to increased drowning incidents in open waterways.

With more Australians holidaying at home and visits to coastal areas and inland waterways increasing, water safety experts are pleading for people to not be complacent when on, in and around water.

SLSA and RLSSA as the leading peak authorities for water safety are looking at strategies ahead of the warmer months. The organisations are looking at:

  • ➔ Water safety campaigns to commence earlier to coincide with projected easing of restrictions
  • ➔ Urgent re-prioritisation of learn to swim programs once pools and swim schools reopen
  • ➔ Increased mobile and agile emergency and lifesaving services to be put in place
  • ➔ Campaigns urging people to swim at patrolled beaches and local aquatic centres (once reopened)
  • ➔ Campaigns reinforcing child supervision around water (home, rivers, beach), as well as pool fencing and gate maintenance ahead of summer
  • ➔ Encouraging all Australians to download the BeachSafe App to inform the public where to find patrolled beaches and potential hazards at popular coastal locations.

Other key facts from the report include:

  • Coastal rescue-related incidents coast were up 150% from average, with rip currents at unpatrolled locations being prominent factors within these incidents
  • There were 25 drowning deaths among children aged under 4 years, an 108% increase on last year and a 9% increase on the 10-year average.
  • People aged 25-34 years accounted for 17% of all drowning deaths, the most of any age group.
  • 136 drowning deaths occurred on coastal waters, an 13% increase on last year and the 10-year average (n=120).
  • 75 drowning deaths occurred in rivers and creeks - a 53% increase on last year.

Commenting on the findings, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said theFederal Government was determined to support organisations like Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving Australia to raise water safety awareness and to make our pools, waterways and beaches safer.

Prime Minister Morrison advised “this summer, more than ever, Australians will want to get outdoors and enjoy summer. We are a water orientated nation, and it’s part of who we are.

“Whether it’s at the beach and the pool, in rivers and dams, or indeed, the family home, we all need to be mindful of how dangerous and unforgiving the water can be.

“The report brings together the learning of past years to remind us of what we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

“Australia has some of the best volunteers and experts helping to keep us safe, but it’s the responsibility of us all that we do our part to listen and practice the messages around water safety.

“Keep between the flags, be cautious when swimming in new surroundings, and wear a life jacket when you should.

“I thank Royal Life Saving Australia and Surf Life Saving Australia for this report and their important contribution to saving lives on our waters.

Royal Life Saving Chief Executive, Justin Scarr, said he was saddened by the tragic increase in child drowning, and the generational impacts of disruptions to children’s swimming and water safety lessons.

Scarr noted “Royal Life Saving fears that many children will never return to lessons, so won’t meet the fundamental water safety benchmarks, and will miss out on the lifelong benefits of being able to swim. Young children need constant supervision around water, and pool owners should check their pool fence and gate is in good working order ahead of summer.

“We are concerned about the sharp increase in drowning deaths in inland waterways, particularly rivers. Alcohol and drugs are a key factor in drowning, and lead men to overestimate their swimming ability and under-estimate the risks.”

SLSA Chief Executive, Adam Weir said the last 18 months have been tough on all Australians and while enjoying Australia’s coastline is a favourite pastime, it is no time to be complacent, adding “with more Australians holidaying at home and making the most of our iconic coastline, our simple message is to swim at patrolled locations and be aware of your actions and decisions around the water, know your limits. We want to ensure everyone can enjoy our coastline safely and return home to loved ones.

“With 136 coastal drowning deaths in the past 12 months, sitting above the 10 year average, we are deeply concerned to once again see that men accounted for 90% of those drowning deaths.

“Visiting and exploring new places we know is going to be high on people’s list when coming out of lockdown. But be sure to seek out patrolled beaches, download Surf Life Saving’s Beachsafe App and when boating, using watercraft or rock fishing, always wear a lifejacket - it could save your life.”

Click here to view thew full report.

Images (from top): 2020/21 saw a 150% increase in coastal rescue-related incidents (credit: SLSA); Royal Life Saving highlight the dangers of river locations (credit: Royal Life Saving); Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison [right] announcing $9.7 million in additional Federal Government funding to SLSA in February this year at the Collaroy Surf Life Saving Club on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with local member Jason Falinski [second from right] and local life saving volunteers (credit: Jason Falinski) and Royal Life Saving's Swim and Survive program (credit: Royal Life Saving).

Related Articles

23rd August 2021 - Royal Life Saving provides guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations and aquatic facilities

2nd August 2021 - Royal Life Saving to launch report into the social, health and economic value of the aquatic industry

24th July 2021 - Life Saving bodies urge Australians to take action to end drowning on World Drowning Prevention Day

19th July 2021 - New data reveals dam drowning risk

17th July 2021 - Australian Surf Life Saving Championships secured for Queensland with 10 year deal

7th June 2021 - NSW Surf Life Saving Clubs receive funding boost to support facility upgrades

18th May 2021 - Royal Life Saving highlights lifeguard and swim teacher shortage as providing opportunities for job seekers

13th May 2021 - Study highlights coastal drowning risk among visitors and recent overseas arrivals in South Australia

6th May 2021 - Surf Life Saving Queensland’s volunteers save more than 950 lives over the 20/21 patrol season

4th May 2021 - Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguards Association conference to explore reversing rising summer drowning toll

30th April 2021 - United Nations passes first ever Resolution on Global Drowning Prevention

9th April 2021 - Australian Water Safety Council seeks local government backing to help reduce drownings

25th March 2021 - New Water Safety Strategy sets out plan to significantly cut Australia’s drowning rate

29th March 2021 - Royal Life Saving advises of National Aquatic Industry Committee membership

15th March 2021 - Increase in summer drownings prompts plea from Surf Life Saving Australia

20th February 2021 - Prime Minister Morrison pledges extra funds for Surf Life Saving across Australia

23rd November 2020 - Royal Life Saving’s latest Keep Watch campaign highlights tragic drowning toll among children aged under 12 months

6th October 2020 - Royal Life Saving concerned over significant fall in swimming lesson enrolments

18th September 2020 - Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving Australia report males account for 80% of all drowning deaths

13th September 2020 - Royal Life Saving survey suggests that swim school enrolments fell by 30% in August


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