When the news surfaced that three young women had travelled from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney, failed to quarantine and two in the group subsequently tested positive to COVID-19, there was severe backlash.
Ultimately, Queensland Police laid charges against the women, alleging they provided false and misleading documents at the border. The two women will face court on September 28.
While there’s no question these women did the wrong thing, evidence from past health crises shows us shaming and stigma don’t necessarily encourage compliance with public health advice. Public shaming could instead further marginalise already vulnerable groups.
But it’s important to consider the role privilege plays when individuals become the subject of our collective outrage and condemnation.
We might compare the treatment of the Queensland women with a similar controversy in March, when a Melbourne couple contracted COVID-19 while on a skiing holiday in Aspen, Colorado. They tested positive back in Australia but reportedly flouted the directive to self-isolate.
The Melbourne couple were wealthy white Australians, and their case has been dealt with quite differently to the young Queensland women who are African Australian.
While both cases elicited public backlash, most publications didn’t name the Melbourne couple, citing “legal reasons”. Conversely, the young women from Queensland were identified by name, and photographs were taken from their Facebook accounts.
The online anger directed at the women became increasingly racial in nature. They were identifiable as non-white and had attended an African grocery shop while potentially infectious.
Within hours of these details being published, members of the African community in Brisbane reported intense racist harassment on social media.
The public backlash against the Melbourne couple was muted by their relative anonymity. They were protected from the level of doxxing — having one’s identity and personal information shared widely online — the young women have experienced.
The wealth of existing research on pandemics and epidemics shows people who contract a virus and then go on to spread it are often subject to public shaming and stigma.
Importantly, there’s compelling evidence public shaming is an ineffective tool to encourage compliance with public health orders and restrictions.
Extensive research into the stigma experienced by people living with HIV/AIDS has found this stigmatisation reduces the likelihood a person with the disease will seek a test, diagnosis or health care.
Similarly, studies on the Ebola epidemic found stigma associated with the virus led people in affected communities to delay seeking treatment.
Public shaming also contributed to significant psychological distress for people exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Public shaming of those who spread COVID-19 may feel cathartic in a time of collective anxiety, but the consequences can be serious. Ultimately, members of our community may become reticent or afraid to be tested — especially already marginalised groups.
Traditional news media has a powerful role in public shaming, as seen in the case of the young Queensland women. The media creates long-lasting records and sets the tone for public debate.
While public shaming has a long history, COVID-19 has intensified social media-fuelled scrutiny and public shaming, exacerbating the effects of virus-related stigma.
We may assume seeing this kind of backlash might pull us all into line and deter us from behaving in the same way. But experience of shame and stigma in previous pandemics shows it’s an ineffective way to encourage compliance with public health orders.
Instead, public shaming is more likely to reinforce and inflame existing social inequalities.
The two young women who got into Queensland from Victoria by allegedly breaking the laws on coronavirus border restrictions have been tried, convicted and sentenced to naming and shaming by the media.
In the febrile climate of public anxiety about the pandemic, this is an invitation to vigilantism, either in the form of online trolling or, worse, by acts of retaliation.
There is also a streak of racism running through some of the coverage, most notably the Brisbane Courer-Mail’s characterisation of them as “enemies of the state”.
The Guardian, which has not named and shamed the women, has reported that members of Brisbane’s African migrant communities have contacted the Queensland Human Rights Commission. They say they have experienced a backlash as a result of the stories.
Many people have made serious mistakes endangering public health during the second wave of the pandemic: the people responsible for hotel quarantine in Victoria, the people who have tried to smuggle their way across borders in the boots of cars, and many others who have reportedly got across borders by breaking the rules.
None of them has been named and shamed. There are ranks of government ministers and public servants behind the Ruby Princess and hotel quarantine debacles. Why not track them down and republish photos from their social media posts?
The answer, of course, is power and the consequent risk of retaliatory legal action. The young women have no power, so it is fair to add a charge of cowardice against the media who have indulged in this exercise.
Queensland Police have charged these women – and a third who travelled with them but has not been named and shamed – with providing false and misleading documents and fraud. The latter charge carries a potential prison term of five years.
In these circumstances it was astonishing to see normally responsible media outlets, including the ABC, SBS, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, joining the pile-on.
There is a tendency in newsrooms to be stampeded by what rivals are publishing, and an ethically bankrupt inclination to say that because everyone else is running a story, we can run it too.
The women are entitled to due process. Naming and shaming is an atavistic response reminiscent of earlier centuries when malefactors were put in the stocks.
When their case comes before the court, the media will be able to report it under conditions that require the reporting to be fair and accurate.
By running their own trial by media, the outlets that published the women’s names and photographs have been able to write their own rules, enabling some of them to use ugly and excessive language without restraint.
Australians live under the rule of law, not of media organisations. If any parties to this are behaving like enemies of the state, it is those who arrogate to themselves the functions that in our democracy are reserved to the courts.
As the Morrison government on Wednesday stepped up its attack on Western Australia over its refusal to open its borders, it faced a couple of awkward political questions.
The Prime Minister was quizzed at a news conference in Canberra on why his government was supporting Clive Palmer in his High Court challenge to the closure.
And on Perth radio, Attorney-General Christian Porter was asked whether the federal government would be thanked or blamed if Palmer won the case.
The Palmer challenge is in the federal court, which is dealing with matters of fact before the High Court hears it.
Well before the High Court decision, the federal government is calling the result, predicting the McGowan government is headed for a legal bruising.
“It is highly likely that the constitutional position that is being reviewed in this case will not fall in the Western Australian government’s favour,” Morrison said. Porter put the same view.
Whatever the ultimate court outcome, there is little doubt McGowan’s tough line has gone down a treat with his constituency. It has not just helped keep the state COVID-safe but fits nicely with those latent WA secessionist instincts.
The federal government is dealing with the bad look of being aligned with the discredited Palmer by simply denying the reality.
“Let me be clear, we are not supporting Clive Palmer,” Morrison declared, a proposition that was anything but clear.
“An action has been brought in relation to the WA border. It goes to quite serious constitutional issues which the Commonwealth could not be silent about,” Morrison said.
Porter’s take is that the Commonwealth isn’t arguing for either side in the case but is “a middle man…there to provide expert evidence”.
That evidence, however, backs up Palmer.
As a general rule Morrison, with economic considerations in mind, has never favoured closed state borders, though he had to give pragmatic support to the present NSW-Victorian closure. The states went their own ways regardless of Canberra’s view.
With no persuasive argument easily mounted at the moment to open any border to Victorians, the federal government wants WA to compromise by opening to low risk states.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, in an opinion piece this week, urged a “balance” between protecting the health of West Australians and “protecting current jobs and not standing in the way of the strongest possible jobs recovery”.
Porter warned WA’s all-or-nothing approach risked “an adverse finding in the High Court which requires you to do everything at once.” Both Porter and Cormann are West Australians.
As relations between the Morrison and McGowan governments became even more fractious over the border issue, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Wednesday she will close her border to Sydneysiders from 1am Saturday.
This followed two 19-year-old women who flew from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney and did not isolate (there is an investigation as to whether they gave false information). A third woman, a close contact, has also tested positive.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian wasn’t warned and, it can be assumed, wasn’t pleased. Earlier, she had been vociferous about the need for Queensland to open its border.
Asked about the Queensland action, Morrison said “I think it’s important to sort of put borders aside when it comes to those things”, preferring to focus on limiting movement of people from outbreak zones.
The PM wants targeted responses to outbreaks, not nuclear options.
His approach rests on an optimistic assumption – that limited outbreaks are capable of containment without a massive reaction, such as border closures or major lockdowns. For this to be correct, everything needs to go right.
The Morrison prescription also depends on other political leaders being willing to take some risks – and Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan are not.
Palaszczuk’s decision will bring economic costs for Queensland. Businesses expecting Sydney visitors will have cancellations, and future uncertainty will be created.
There will be some blowback for the premier, as she approaches the state election in October. But she calculates, probably correctly, the negatives will be a lot less politically dangerous than if she were seen to fail to do everything possible to protect Queenslanders’ health.
And the sudden high alert in Queensland is likely to just reinforce McGowan’s resistance to the federal government’s pressure to compromise.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted June 3-6 from a sample of 1,510, gave the Coalition a 51-49 lead, unchanged from three weeks ago. Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one), 34% Labor (down one), 12% Greens (up two) and 4% One Nation (up one).
Scott Morrison maintained his high coronavirus crisis ratings. 66% were satisfied with his performance (steady) and 29% dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of +37. Anthony Albanese’s net approval dropped four points to +3; his ratings peaked at +11 in late April. Morrison led as better PM by 56-26 (56-29 three weeks ago).
This Newspoll maintains the situation where Morrison is very popular, but the Coalition is not benefiting from his popularity to the extent that would normally be expected. Six weeks ago, when Morrison’s net approval was +40, analyst Kevin Bonham said the Coalition’s expected two party vote was between 54% and 60%.
Respondents were asked whether various organisations had a positive, negative or neutral impact on the coronavirus pandemic around the world. The World Health Organisation was at 34% positive, 32% negative and the United Nations was at 23% positive, 21% negative. Coalition voters were most likely to give the WHO and UN poor marks.
Xi Jinping and the Chinese government was at just 6% positive, 72% negative. Donald Trump and the US government was at 9% positive, 79% negative.
Seventy-nine percent thought the Morrison government was doing the right thing by pushing for an independent inquiry into the origins and handling of coronavirus against Chinese objections. By 59-29, voters thought Australia should prioritise the US relationship over China. There was more support for China from Labor and Greens voters.
The Queensland election will be held on October 31. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Mail, conducted last week from a sample of over 1,000, gave the LNP a 52-48 lead, a two-point gain for the LNP since the January YouGov. Primary votes were 38% LNP (up three), 32% Labor (down two), 12% One Nation (down three) and 12% Greens (up two). Figures from The Poll Bludger.
Despite Labor’s weak voting intentions, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s ratings surged. Her approval was up 20 points to 49% and her disapproval down 11 to 33%, for a net approval of +16, up 31 points. On net approval, Palaszczuk’s ratings are the same as in a late April premiers’ Newspoll. However, that Newspoll gave Palaszczuk a net approval far lower than for any of the other five premiers.
Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington’s ratings were 26% approve (up three) and 29% disapprove (down four), for a net approval of -3, up seven points. Palaszczuk led as better premier by 44-23 (34-22 in January).
This section is an updated version of an article I wrote for The Poll Bludger, published on Friday. The Poll Bludger article includes a section on the UK polls following the Dominic Cummings breach of quarantine scandal.
In the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate, Donald Trump’s ratings with all polls are 41.7% approve, 53.9% disapprove (net -12.2%). With polls of registered or likely voters, Trump’s ratings are 42.3% approve, 54.1% disapprove (net -11.8%).
Since my article three weeks ago, Trump has lost about four points on net approval. His disapproval rating is at its highest since the early stages of the Ukraine scandal last November.
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has widened to 7.2%, up from 4.5% three weeks ago. That is Biden’s biggest lead since December 2019. Biden has 49.6% now, close to a majority. If he holds that level of support, it will be very difficult for Trump to win.
Trump has over 90% of the vote among Republicans, but just 3% among Democrats. CNN analyst Harry Enten says Trump’s strategy of appealing only to his base is poor, as he has already maximised support from that section. Enten implies Trump would do better if he appealed more to moderate voters.
In the key states that will decide the Electoral College and hence the presidency, it is less clear. National and state polls by Change Research gave Biden a seven-point lead nationally, but just a three-point lead in Florida, a two-point lead in Michigan and a one-point lead in North Carolina. In Wisconsin, Trump and Biden were tied, while Trump led by one in Arizona and four in Pennsylvania.
This relatively rosy state polling picture for Trump is contradicted by three Fox News polls. In these polls, Biden leads by nine points in Wisconsin, four points in Arizona and two points in Ohio. Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2016, and it was not thought to be in play.
Ironically, Change Research is a Democrat-associated pollster, while Fox News is very pro-Trump. Fieldwork for all these state polls was collected since May 29, when the George Floyd protests began.
Other state polls have also been worse for Trump than the Change Research polls. A Texas poll from Quinnipiac University had Trump leading by just one point. Trump won Texas by nine points in 2016. In Michigan, an EPIC-MRA poll has Biden leading by 12. In North Carolina, a PPP poll has Biden ahead by four.
Concerning the protests over the murder of George Floyd, in an Ipsos poll for Reuters conducted June 1-2, 64% said they sympathised with the protesters, while 27% did not. In another Ipsos poll, this time for the US ABC News, 66% disapproved of Trump’s reaction to the protests and just 32% approved.
The May US jobs report was released last Friday. 2.5 million jobs were added, and the unemployment rate fell 1.4% to 13.3%. Economists on average expected 8.3 million job losses and an unemployment rate of 19.5%. An unemployment rate of 13.3% is terrible by historical standards, but it is clear evidence the US economy is already recovering from the coronavirus hit.
The employment population ratio – the percentage of eligible Americans currently employed – rose 1.5% to 52.8%, but it is still far below the 58.2% lowest point during the global financial crisis.
US daily coronavirus cases and deaths are down from their peak, and stockmarkets anticipate a strong economic recovery. But it is likely that a greater amount of economic activity will allow the virus to resurge. A strong recovery from coronavirus would assist Trump, but unemployment is a lagging indicator that is likely to recover more slowly than the overall economy.
I wrote for The Poll Bludger on May 22 that two New Zealand polls had the governing Labour party taking a massive lead over the opposition National, ahead of the September 19 election. New Zealand now has zero active (currently infected) coronavirus cases, and has had no new cases since May 22. It appears they have eliminated the virus.