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In the bible, a scapegoat is one of a pair of animals employed within a ceremonial ritual to represent sin, admission and purification. One goat is slain as an offering to God. The other goat is “presented alive before the Lord”, and symbolically made to “wear” all the sins of the community, before being released into the wilderness so as to take those sins elsewhere.
In Australia, in a time of pandemic, a scapegoat is some poor bastard who works in a pizza shop, forcibly recruited within a pair of media and political rituals to be demonised and ostracised for having a second job in a quarantine hotel, and personally blamed for spreading the virus.
You know, that virus that is insanely contagious, rapidly mutating, has infected 110,000,000 worldwide, killed nearly 2.5 million of them, and has even been found in the unpopulated ice content of Antarctica.
You might have thought that transmission and spread of the virus may have been facilitated by an intersection of everything from its virulence and suddenness, to short-falls in public health governance (America), poor public policy leadership (hello Boris Johnson!), inadequate resourcing, the physical properties of urban design, trade routes, grifting culture war campaigns run by political opportunists, an as-yet-incomplete scientific understanding of it, and the inevitable fuckups made when actual, live human beings are tasked to do anything at all. We’ve been living with this thing for a year now. These facts are on record.
But if you read certain newspapers – or, if you’re only on Facebook, filled with the kind of rumour-mongering that your ex’s step-brother might half-remember from a newspaper – you’d have a firm case to make that this year of misery and mass death was all due to the dude in the pizza shop, definitely him.
The Australian reported this week that “two men who became hate figures” in South Australia are trying to rebuild their lives after becoming the target of political blame for spreading the coronavirus they caught while working in a quarantine hotel.
A 20-officer police taskforce was deployed to “go over” Adelaide’s Woodville Pizza Bar, watching 400 hours of CCTV footage and seizing staff members’ mobile phones. Meanwhile, denizens of social media sharpened their goat-gutting knives and speculated the pizza shop simply must have links to organised crime, drug dealing, illegal work practices, aliens from space, Bigfoot, Bill Gates and a magical poop-shovel that when deployed on an Adelaide pavement created temporal portals for the entry of nefarious airborne whales. I may have made several of these accusations up, but given the present state of Facebook, satire of this sort, alas, does not stay satire for too long.
The police, of course, found nothing, two men endured public humiliation while suffering terrifying infection from a lethal virus, the pizza shop owners were “decent and law abiding” and the investigation was closed in December.
The pizza shop experience was a repeat of the humiliation that ensued back in July when two teenage girls did something careless, naughty, indulgent and self-endangering by thinking rules did not apply to them, which has apparently never happened in this history of teenagers anywhere, and certainly not in Queensland. They were not only photographed, named, shamed and doxxed on the front page of newspapers, but vivisected on social media. All the while, they were not only facing police charges and serious fines but they, also, had coronavirus.
Before that, there was a villain in Hobart, who disgracefully brought his infected self to work, at a time when no one knew much about the virus and, also, he had to work.
There have been others – conspicuously, it’s people of colour, the working and the poor who have faced the naming and vitriol that spared whiter, richer and perhaps more Aspen-visiting vectors of infection.
But there should be none. Careless individual acts are part of our risk matrix but our systems have overwhelmed them, again and again. Australia has had some physical advantages that limited the spread of the virus, our public systems were for the most part robust, state governments were prepared to weather the consequences of correct but difficult decisions, the vast majority of the population diligently followed public health guidelines, and we did not face the ravages in other countries because we also had a lot of luck. Don’t believe in luck? Say the words “Ruby Princess” into a mirror three times at midnight, I dare ya.
“Scapegoat theory” holds that people seek to focus resentment on others when they themselves feel victimised and powerless, and seek a target onto which feelings of hostility can be safely displaced. Strangers mentioned in social media posts for their self-harming mistakes or compromises are handy substitutes for an invisible killer virus whose behaviour won’t be shamed or changed even if it cops a by-name bollocking in the Herald-Sun. But it’s not healthy. Not when such targeting can feed into tribal in-group/out-group discourses that morph into classism, racism or xenophobia all too quickly, especially on the internet.
The fixation on individual behaviours ignores and makes silent the crucial lesson that this miserable year has to teach the world – yes, even the Americans. It’s the strength of collective systems that ultimately help us or harm us.
People can be goats, that’s true. Twelve months in, we should know by now; the virus itself remains the villain here.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: We need to stop scapegoating individuals during Covid outbreaks. The virus is the villain | Australian media