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Name and Shame | The pandemic has exposed Australia’s love of ritual public humiliation

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

On Tuesday July 27, it was revealed that the Victorian Department of Health had wound up their investigation into the Sydney removalists blamed for sparking Victoria’s fifth Covid lockdown.

After a “complex and extensive investigation involving at least two police jurisdictions, CCTV records across the entire state, logbooks and phone records”, the department issued a $200 fine to one worker for failing to wear a mask, while also noting that it is permitted to remove a mask during strenuous work.

This is an increasingly familiar conclusion to periods of media blaming and shaming during this pandemic — sensationalist media reports, and policymakers at press conferences aiming a litany of accusations at private individuals, followed a few weeks later by a quiet walkback as all the facts become known.

As this pandemic drags well into its second year, a pattern has emerged where politicians use rituals of public shaming and example-setting to justify and enforce their policy decisions. Invariably, it’s ordinary people who bear the brunt of these tactics.

Blame first, get the facts later

We remember how the hotel quarantine breaches that sparked Melbourne’s lengthy second lockdown were blamed on a security guard. We remember the media reports rich in innuendo, speculating about the exact circumstances under which he’d been in physical contact with a Covid patient? Maybe you don’t remember that it was later acknowledged the security guard was not the source of the breach at all, but a night duty manager.

Similarly, during Victoria’s fourth lockdown this year, a high-profile argument broke out around a quarantine patient using a nebuliser. The patient said he’d sought permission from the Department to use the device — which is used to vaporise liquid medication for inhalation — while policymakers maintained over a series of press conferences that he had not.

Months after a fundamentally unequal disagreement between the State Government and a private individual played out in the press, a departmental report judged the initial outbreak did not occur due to the nebuliser, but took place after a “lengthy swabbing” of an unmasked woman in an open hotel doorway.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this shaming and example-setting is the disproportionate treatment papers seem to reserve for non-white people.

Who could forget the Queensland teenagers whose risky trip to Covid-struck Melbourne last year made them the target of a series of especially ugly reports in the press, most notably in Brisbane’s Courier Mail, which plastered their faces across the front page.

Likewise, on Wednesday, the identity of the Sydney tradesman who sparked Queensland’s latest Covid scare was revealed. It’s remarkable but perhaps not surprising that this man has also been singled out for media humiliation.

Many white Australians who’ve done similar or worse — including those in the ultra-rich elite — have been afforded the luxury of remaining anonymous. If the pandemic has exposed the ugliness that sits just under the surface of Australian society, this has inevitably included a huge serve of racism.

As the latest lockdown – Victoria’s fifth — started, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews issued a direct threat that he wouldn’t hesitate to shame wrongdoers in the press.

People would have “every chance of becoming very, very famous,” he warned, if they entered Victoria without a permit. Fines or criminal sanctions were not enough to guard against breaches, the Premier had chosen to explicitly add being named and shamed in the press to his arsenal of punishments.

After so many ordinary people had been shamed on front pages with allegations they breached health protocols, the Premier’s threat carried a great deal of weight.

The utility of this punishment was that there was no need to submit an allegation to the checks and balances of the court system. All the Premier needed to do was to put it out there during a press conference or via a leak to a sympathetic media organisation. The press would do the rest.

The desperate search for COVID villains

As we’ve seen continually, by the time the facts of the case are pinned down, the media has long since moved on to the next story. But for the person in question, the reputational damage and the impact to their mental health and safety in the community can be severe and lengthy.

Even if they do end up being vindicated, there’s very little chance this will be acknowledged or addressed with the same prominence with which they were characterised as a Covid villain.

The urge for the press to locate the one action that sets off an outbreak must be very strong. With something as unpredictable as a pandemic, maybe reporters have been keen to wrest back some degree of control by finding heroes and villains, and perhaps ascribing agency where it doesn’t belong.

Dan Andrews certainly hasn’t escaped his share of blame during the pandemic, but surely that’s something you expect when you put your hand up to become Premier. The same can’t be said for removalists or security guards.

You could argue that in an attempt to escape some of the political fallout for imposing lockdowns, our political leaders have found that ordinary people make exceptional scapegoats. After all, a removalist or security guard can’t call press conferences or put a team of spin doctors on their payroll. But policymaking decisions are surely more consequential than the small decisions that put these people on the front pages.

When we see policymakers place a focus on the actions of these individuals, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re doing so in an attempt to direct the blame away from themselves. And of course, it goes without saying that when things go right, our leaders aren’t as keen to direct the accolades elsewhere.

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