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

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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.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

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 January this year, parts of Perth went into a five-day lockdown after a hotel quarantine guard contracted COVID-19 and was reported to also work for a ride-share company. At least this time the media reported comments by President of the Australian Medical Association WA branch, Dr Andrew Miller, who emphasised that ‘the situation was not the man's fault. … He was someone trying to do his job but he was put in a situation where he was set up to fail by using inadequate quarantine facilities.’

 

'...we are going to have to make a conscious effort to decrease our focus on individual conduct and to place more emphasis on the systems that need reform.'

 

Despite this, the appeal of the blame game appears to be unabated.

Although there has been a reasonable level of attention paid to governance issues — such as the incredibly slow vaccine roll out, the ongoing problems with hotel quarantine, and the timing of the lockdown itself — Sydney’s current lockdown has also been marked by an unhelpful focus on individual actions. First, the limousine driver who first contracted COVID-19 from an international flight crew was pilloried by police, politicians and media for his ‘inexcusable actions’ in exposing the community to risk. A big show was made of investigating the possibility of charging him with breaching public health orders, only for the police to conclude, ‘there is insufficient evidence to establish that either the limousine driver or his employer breached any public health orders’ — which is weasel words for, ‘nothing he did was against the law, because we didn’t provide safer regulation, but we’d still like you to blame him, thanks.’

Following this, we have seen people attacking Sydney-siders for spending time outdoors during lockdown — despite the incredibly low levels of risk — and generally seeking to police individual conduct rather than paying attention to the systemic issues that exacerbate risk. Most recently, the federal government released a graphic advertising campaign targeted at Sydney residents. It features a woman gasping for air on a ventilator, followed by the message to ‘get vaccinated’. Given that the actor does not appear to be over 40, and the vaccine roll out has not yet reached those under 40s (unless you count the mixed messaging around Astra-Zeneca), the campaign has been met with anger by younger people who feel they are being scapegoated for the government’s vaccination failures.

Why does this matter? Well, it particularly matters because the individual blame narrative is a perfect justification for the authoritarian, punitive measures that our governments have been so keen on adopting throughout this pandemic. Instead of being met with critical scrutiny, these measures have largely been welcomed by the majority of Australians who appear to feel safer under this approach.

In fact, recent research has demonstrated that our experience of this pandemic (and, more particularly, the leadership response provided by our governments) has made Australians more conservative and care less about others. Over the past year and a half, Australians have become more individualistic and selfish, and less supportive of human rights. As we lurch from one emergency (COVID) to another (climate change) this does not bode well for the treatment of the most vulnerable in our community — or, indeed, for the kind of community that we will foster in response to these challenges.

If we want to shift this narrative, then we are going to have to make a conscious effort to decrease our focus on individual conduct and to place more emphasis on the systems that need reform. Focusing on, and fixing, systems might be complex and even boring, but it is the only way we are going to address the underlying causes of the issues that scare us and make our lives less pleasant — be they a global pandemic, unemployment, rising inequality or climate change.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, COVID-19, individualism, lockdown, health

 

 

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Existing comments

Every example of politicians blaming the person who became the index case sickens and infuriates me: the staff member working in the galley on the Ruby Princess, the aged care worker at Newmarch, the nurses at a hospital in Tasmania having dinner one night, the three young women who had been to Victoria and returned to Qld. I was surprised and relieved the limo driver and his manager were not prosecuted. All these people deserve state-funded debriefing and compensation for their ordeal. It is only too clear all Australian governments are unswayed in their ready embrace of the lowest and cheapest of means to divide and demonise. Just to twist the knife, community transmission is now deemed the fault of young people in SWSydney who should 'stay home' at the same time, not infect anyone they share their home with. I agree there is every sign many Australians have taken it upon themselves to decide who gets a go in this country and the circumstances they get a go in. Ugly indeed. And the worst possible approach for people to be able to seek support to protect themselves and their families in a pandemic.


Catarina Neve | 13 July 2021  

This article may be of interest to others reading this article. https://www.smh.com.au/national/blaming-and-shaming-breaks-a-cardinal-rule-of-public-health-20201121-p56gpa.html


Catarina Neve | 13 July 2021  

I agree Kristy. It's so much easier to find a scapegoat than find a solution! I'm reminded of a comment last year (after the enquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle in Sydney, and other instances where powerless individuals were singled out for blame, but not the ones in power that could actually effect some change) - the comment was: everyone is sorry, but no-one is responsible.


Anne Marie | 13 July 2021  

Thank you for the article, Cristy. I am interested to read the research you refer to in the article, about individualism and selfishness in values during COVID? thanks Jan


Jan carter | 13 July 2021  

Congratulations Cristy for you article & your perceptive comments. Wish I read it before I went out to lunch today with friends whose Covid dialogue centred around the behaviour of individuals. The decisions made should focus more on the proactive rather than the reactive. Somehow I think that might be a long way off.


Susan Swift | 13 July 2021  

Good observations and commentary. What's worth considering is the under 40's "blame game" back to the government advert. Sure, we know the vaccines (both brands) are in limited supply which makes the government an easy target, fire away. The value of the shock advert is create sharp awareness to under 40's that under 40's can get the Delta strain and possibly wind up very ill, too. Even if the vaccine is immediately available it takes 8 - 12 weeks until near full protection; this ad fits an interim between availability and readiness to vaccinate; better than a shared milkshake. ..or maybe vanilla softserve is more digestible?


ray | 13 July 2021  

You are dead right Cristy. The current behaviour of government and of opinion makers bodes ill for the existential challenges we will face in the years ahead.


Colin Apelt | 13 July 2021  

'If we want to shift this narrative, then we are going to have to make a conscious effort to decrease our focus on individual conduct and to place more emphasis on the systems that need reform' Excellent article. thank you


Michele Madigan | 14 July 2021  

"Why does this matter? Well, it particularly matters because the individual blame narrative is a perfect justification for the authoritarian, punitive measures that our governments have been so keen on adopting throughout this pandemic." Do you mean, Cristy, that the hard lockdowns were/are unnecessarily authoritarian and punitive? I thought they were necessary at the time. I think I have missed your point. Can you explain please.


Patrick Kempton | 14 July 2021  

Hi Jan, The research in question is hyperlinked in the same paragraph - https://theconversation.com/our-research-shows-covid-has-made-australians-more-conservative-and-care-less-about-others-161500 kind regards Cristy


Cristy | 14 July 2021  

I blame a lot of this nonsense on the notorious in-your-face 24/7 march of the videocameras in the hands of journalists probing into every nook and cranny, especially those which should be off limits. Example: some footage shot recently of Ben Roberts-Smith and his new girlfriend at a restaurant without their permission. This is real paparazzi voyeur stuff. It sucks. It has nothing to do with the very serious allegations made against him, against which he has launched a defamation case. In instances such as this I wish we had retired generals as cluey and feisty as Mike Rose (General Sir Michael Rose) who wanted Tony Blair tried for taking Britain into Iraq on misinformation. Mike has seen the dirty end of war, the nonheroic stuff in ghastly battle zones such as Northern Ireland. He knows how they effect the mental health of those who have served there.


Edward Fido | 23 July 2021  

people love covid lockdowns as they fear death and disease which are part of life. people care for others and that is against the health orders. OUr chief medical officer for nsw says no to talking to people in the supermarket as they or you might get covid oh and be serious


stuart lawrence | 23 July 2021  

The whole security industry business is very dubious. Some areas are dominated by very ruthless members of a particular ethnic community who exploit those from the same community. The Australians in it are no whit better. What about workers' rights here? They don't get a gurnsey. Nothing beats salaried, responsible public employees here.


Edward Fido | 25 July 2021  

If Cristy had lived in Melbourne during last winter's long lockdown she may have written a different article. While there was some criticism of hapless individuals, in most cases we recognised that the primary failures were with systems, especially those dealing with quarantine whether of community hotspots, returning travellers, or aged care facilities and those dealing with contact tracing. It was pretty obvious to begin with that some planning for disaster response, if it existed, had not been done, and if it had been done it had not been tested. We learned the hard way about tracking but at least we learned. What stuck in our craws most was the abject failure of the Commonwealth to accept that it had mismanaged its responsibilities for those in quarantine and aged care facilities. Added to this was the failure of the much vaunted but basically ineffective CovidSafe app, and more recently the vaccination train-wreck and the ineffective communications by the Commonwealth. No wonder then that Victorians began to heap blame upon those Commonwealth ministers who were responsible both for the system failures and also for the inadequate response to failure. The current experience in Sydney might be different, I don't live there so I don't know. But Sydney is not Melbourne, and NSW is not Victoria, and Canberra, where Cristy works, is closer both geographically and culturally, to Sydney than it is to Melbourne and the other state capitals.


Ginger Meggs | 31 July 2021  

Melbourne is a strange place, Ginger. I grew up there. Only Melbourne could have produced Barry Humphries, one of our Living National Treasures. Like the late Clive James he chooses to live abroad. Barry is very cynical about our conformism. He sends up our politicians via that atrocity Dr Sir Leslie Paterson, a fictional Old Xavierian. ROFL. We have a dreadful cronyism and conformity in politics. Someone like Michele Madigan, a nonviolent protester to aspects of this conformity, has copped considerable shit. Why? She's a decent mature lady doing what is normally quite legal. I don't think she's about to destroy the world. Society is people. We need to be a bit more tolerant as a society. Life is not a footy game. You don't need to ruthlessly abuse the opposition.


Edward Fido | 10 August 2021  

Sydney is a strange place too, Edward, I grew up there, in that strange Anglican anomaly. I escaped (both) years ago, and now regard it as Tinseltown. The latest example in the differences between the two cities consider the recent decisions by each to to impose a curfew. In both cities, they were intended to assist the police in interdicting party-goers. In Melbourne, when case numbers were around 20 per day, it was announced one afternoon to take effect across the whole city from 5pm that evening. In Sydney, where case numbers exceeded 600 per day, it was announced on a Friday but would not take effect until the following Monday evening and then only in a few LGAs !


Ginger Meggs | 20 August 2021  

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