COVID scapegoats: the only national sport that has played all season

Not only does the hunt for COVID-19 scapegoats fail to address the issues that lead to outbreaks, it also creates new health risks.

COVID scapegoat website Woodville Pizza Bar, Adelaide (Image: Woodville Pizza Bar)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the middle of the pandemic, it is that our nation loves a scapegoat.

Experts say our habit of pointing the finger at individuals only distracts us from a range of more general issues that are supposedly horny security guards, fraudulent quarantine refugees, or the pizza shop worker blamed for a nationwide lockdown. And for those who bear the brunt of the burden, the public pile can be debilitating.

Our last victim came into the spotlight on Sunday when the SA public health chief Nicola Spurrier falsely accused a man of breaking quarantine rules. Unsurprisingly, public comment quickly sparked a tirade of slander for the man’s contagious “shopping spree”.

One Facebook user suggested “locking those stitches to break the quarantine” while others wanted to take it into their own hands by asking for his name and address.

That was until Monday morning when Spurrier publicly apologized to the man – whom she revealed had actually done nothing wrong – and thanked him for his continued cooperation with contract enforcers.

Unfortunately, the shopping scapegoat pale compared to SA’s pizza shop worker, who became a notorious mascot for the state’s brief but harsh lockdown last month. When Prime Minister Steven Marshall lifted the restrictions three days early, he accused the worker of “lying” to contact Tracer.

At an inflammatory press conference, Marshall claimed they were “absolutely angry at the actions of this individual” and planned to hold him accountable. Police Commissioner Grant Stevens then unnecessarily stated that the person was a 36-year-old Spanish visa holder.

After three days of cabin fever, fueled by the words of an “angry” premier, SA mobs took their virtual pitchforks and terrorized every possible online platform of the Woodville Pizza Bar and its “fraudulent” employee. Much like we saw with the embarrassed trio of women who allegedly escaped quarantine when they returned to Queensland from Melbourne in July, this little pass opened him up to an unproductive onslaught of public abuse.

Marshall’s promise to throw the book at the worker seems to have been forgotten. Police in South Australia said that due to the confidentiality of contact tracing interviews, SA Health is unable to provide the evidence needed to establish a case. Although he will not be brought to justice, the consequences have changed the worker’s life significantly.

His lawyer Scott Jelbert says the man is now “hiding and at least not coming out for the time being.”

“Those who identified him and a lot of people contacted him and it was overwhelming.”

Jelbert says his client is “not looking for blood” but is understandably looking for a way to “fix the record” and return to some sort of normalcy.

The lecturer in bioethics at the University of Sydney, Dr. Diego Silva, says releasing identifiable characteristics of the pizza shop worker was dangerous and not useful from a public health perspective.

“One of the things they teach you about public health is not to give out any personal information unless you absolutely have to,” said Silva. “In this case, it just doesn’t seem like these facts need to be revealed.”

Ross Womersley, CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS), argues that the SA’s health authorities run the risk of spreading a number of unhelpful messages by blaming an individual worker:

“It didn’t address the systemic issues that we know are at play, and it actually created a new risk: people are less likely to identify and present themselves for testing because they are worried, ashamed to become.”

A coalition of SA organizations, including SACOSS, has since written an open letter to Marshall stating, “The government’s initial response has led some in our community to be vindictive at this person, and he has drawn the attention of the distracted structural working conditions has contributed to the transmission of COVID in our state and country ”.

Womersly points out that myriad systemic factors come into play that can lead a person to the circumstances in which they become infected with the virus.

“In this case, we can be fairly certain that a major factor is the lack of security of their income,” he said.

These cases have once again brought to light the instability of employment – especially in migrant communities – as people in risk roles work out of necessity in multiple workplaces.

The abuse in South Australia reiterated the mistakes in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system, where the virus was spread by security guards doing extra jobs. Rather than correcting these serious structural flaws, we watched attention being drawn to a victim.

Alison Barrett, Public Health Researcher at the University of South Australia says there needs to be a shift in the way health information is shared with the public in the future in order to maintain trust.

“I felt less confident about the system because of the way they responded to this person,” she said.

“Clear, consistent … evidence-based communication approaches – without individual blame – work best, build trust and reduce fear at the same time.”

We are still in for a while, so our public health system needs to be a resource we can rely on without fear of being lynched for mistakes that are largely beyond the control of the individual.

Although personal responsibility is important, says Dr. Silva: “You can’t separate that from the context.”

“Ignoring the broader determinants of disease spread is folly.”

Crikey Peter Fray

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