The finger-pointing has intensified amid the largest outbreak in almost a year, which has left half the nation in lockdown and stirred fears that the delta variant will end Australia’s pursuit of “covid zero.”
The latest example came this week when twin movers, known here as removalists, were accused of ignoring positive tests and potentially spreading the virus beyond Sydney. The tone of the coverage changed when their mother died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“With the delta outbreak now, we’ve seen an extraordinary amount of shaming, particularly around the removalists,” said Clare Southerton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales. “The shaming really reflects public anxiety about the potential for the outbreak to get worse, and a need to assign personal responsibility rather than acknowledge the fact that the virus is, to some extent, out of our control.”
Australia is far from the only place with covid shaming, Southerton says. But in countries such as the United States, where the virus was widespread before contract tracers could catch up, anger has mostly been directed at superspreader events like weddings or parties.
“It’s really unusual to see people shamed for spreading covid in their everyday lives like we see in Australia,” she said.
In early May, a man in his 50s made headlines for visiting five grilling supply vendors and a butcher’s shop in just a few hours while unknowingly infected with the virus. The case set off alarms in Sydney, which had gone a month without a locally acquired case.
Barbecue Man, as he quickly became known, had dutifully checked into each venue using QR codes, and contact tracers found no spread beyond his family. But the jokes took a dark turn when a major newspaper published his name, occupation and photo — a decision health officials called “appalling.”
“That breaches every principle in outbreak investigation,” said epidemiologist Mike Toole, of the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, adding that covid shaming is counterproductive because it makes others fearful of coming forward. Daily news conferences provide a slow-motion picture of outbreaks as they unfold, with journalists pushing for details. And while health officials have generally been careful about sharing information, some elected leaders have not, Toole said.
He pointed to an incident in November when authorities in Adelaide accused a pizza worker of lying and causing a costly statewide shutdown. Police released the man’s age, nationality, place of employment and visa status. South Australia Premier Steven Marshall said he was “absolutely livid” and promised to “throw the book” at the pizza worker.
“People were talking about dragging him into the street and making an example of him,” said the pizza worker’s attorney, Scott Jelbert. Authorities ultimately didn’t file charges against the pizza worker, but Jelbert says his client remains in hiding.
Australians love a larrikin, a mischievous person with a good heart, said Frank Bongiorno, a historian at Australian National University in Canberra. “But we’re also a very obedient lot and resent disobedience if it costs others,” he said.
Rugby league stars have been fired over covid breaches. Hotlines have been flooded with tips. New South Wales police have fined hundreds and criminally charged dozens. One newspaper recently scolded the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, for not wearing a mask while waiting outside for a coffee. (Masks are not required outdoors unless people come into close contact with someone not in their household, and authorities pointed out that the premier was a safe distance from the cafe.)
Australia’s tabloids have played a prominent role, said Rodney Tiffen, an expert on media and politics at the University of Sydney.
“It’s very much a search for villains,” he said. “They can unite their whole readership behind saying how terrible this person is or that misdeed was, whereas if you’re debating party policy, it’s a 50-50 thing.”
As cases and frustrations mount, it’s understandable that Australians would want to pin the blame somewhere, Southerton said. With the federal government blaming states, supply issues and regulators for the nation’s sluggish vaccination campaign, much of the spotlight has landed on ordinary people. (On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison bowed to days of pressure and apologized for the slow rollout.)
Australia’s current outbreak — now approaching 2,000 cases — has been traced to an airport limousine driver in Sydney who caught the delta variant in June after transporting international flight crews. Authorities initially said they were investigating whether the man failed to wear a mask or get tested as required, but then declined to bring charges. And the driver told reporters he hadn’t been vaccinated because he was worried about side effects from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — the only option available to him at that time.
“My father … has had to endure covid along with my mother whilst the government and media attempt to use him as a scapegoat for the misgivings of the systems that they have in place,” someone identifying themselves as the limo driver’s son wrote on a GoFundMe page.
Some of those shamed have been charged, including a trio of Sydney movers who spread the virus to Melbourne by not wearing masks, as required. (They have not been publicly identified.) Also charged were the twins who allegedly continued deliveries outside Sydney despite being told they had tested positive. The brothers, who are from Iraq, have said they did not understand the order to return home. Photos of the twins and their mother have been published, along with their names. If convicted, they could face six months in jail.
“People are angry about it,” NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys told reporters. “There is no doubt the behavior is reckless, and it is certainly very selfish.”
Some of those shamed fear that their lives will never be the same, no matter their remorse.
When three young women from Brisbane lied about visiting a coronavirus hot spot last July to avoid hotel quarantine, and two of them contracted covid, they were dubbed “the border jumpers” and their faces were put on the front of Queensland’s biggest newspaper under the headline “Enemies of the State.” They were charged with providing false or misleading documents and fraud.
A year later, one of the women told The Washington Post she still suffers from depression over the incident. The refugee from Sierra Leone was subjected to a torrent of online abuse, including calls for her to be deported, court records show. One man sent her racist messages calling her a “parasite” and hoping she and her family died.
“When I was in quarantine by myself for two weeks, the hate was getting to me,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of receiving more vitriol. She began having suicidal thoughts that continued until her court case ended earlier this year, when she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to community service.
She says she is sorry for her “selfish” act but is afraid she will never be forgiven. She rarely leaves her house for fear of being recognized, and the mere mention of Melbourne or flying makes her feel sick. She also worries she may never marry or find a job.
“A lot of people saw what I did as a very idiotic thing,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people would want someone like that.”