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Don’t be distracted by the individual blame game, focus on the system

  • 13 July 2021
When Victoria entered ‘hard lockdown’ in July last year, the media and the public were keen to find someone to blame. Fortunately for the narrative, a story quickly emerged that quarantine-hotel guards had been sleeping with guests during quarantine. Outrage followed and it was cathartic for all involved to have someone to blame for what was, frankly, a scary and deeply unpleasant situation.

Except it never happened. The real story was a lot more complex and, to be fair, a lot more boring. The problem was systemic. The process of hiring security guards for hotel quarantine had been sub-contracted to small operators, who then employed people under insecure, low-wage conditions, and skimped on basic safety measures such as training and the provision of adequate PPE. There were also systemic failings in the health system and the aged care system — many again relating to poorly paid insecure working conditions, coupled with a legacy of earlier austerity measures and a related shift to privatisation.

All this was exposed in the subsequent months, including during the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, and yet apparently the lessons were not heeded. For example, when South Australia entered a snap lockdown in November 2020, it was partly because a hotel quarantine security guard initially told contact tracers that he had been a customer at a pizza bar where another worker was infected. In fact, the security guard also worked at the pizza bar, but had been initially reluctant to admit this. In response, Premier Steven Marshall placed all the blame for lockdown on this one individual worker, saying:

‘To say I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement. The selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation. His actions have affected businesses, individuals, family groups and is completely and utterly unacceptable.’

It must have felt great to shift the blame on to some nameless worker, but it’s important to acknowledge that the real blame here, again, lay with employment conditions. The security guard wasn’t working two jobs for kicks — he was doing it out of necessity, because neither of them paid enough and neither were sufficiently secure. Blaming him did absolutely nothing to fix this systemic issue. It was merely a distraction from the need to fundamentally reform employment conditions and stop pretending that the ‘gig economy’ benefits anyone except those at the top.

Case in point: in