We do things differently in South Australia. Our murders, though not more common than in other states, are stranger. Our transport system, from the O-Bahn guided busway to a unique (and uniquely failed) one-way, reversible expressway, is one of a kind. And so too, it turns out, is our second COVID-19 lockdown.
Instituted on Tuesday in response to a cluster in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, the state’s six-day ‘pause’ or ‘circuit-breaker’ (we don’t, it seems, even call them lockdowns like everybody else does) has now been revoked three days early. The reason, we were told by Premier Steven Marshall during a Friday press conference, was that the person whose case had triggered the new restrictions turned out to have ‘deliberately’ lied about working at a pizza bar.
The premier’s allegation, couched in apoplectic language, was that the ‘male’ in question also worked as a kitchen hand at a medi-hotel and had misled contact tracers by telling them he had only bought a pizza from the shop. During the presser, and in a subsequent media release, Marshall gave full licence to South Australians to share in his ‘disappointment’, ‘anger’, and ‘upset’ about the man’s actions.
They didn’t hold back. Indicative comments on Marshall’s official Facebook page included: ‘surely this individual must be made accountable with either jail time and or fine he cannot be allowed [to] get away scot free’. ‘You have no idea of how badly you’re [sic] actions have affected everybody I hope karma comes around’. And ‘Little shite, we are contracted workers no work no pay. We live week to week. Is he going to pay our wages for the time we lost.’
Right on cue, the Australian, via Adelaide-based columnist David Penberthy, delivered its own spray: ‘As far as lies go,’ Penberthy wrote, ‘this was a triple-supreme, cheese-filled crust, party-sized monster, with extra ham and double pepperoni, dreamt up by a selfish, card-carrying idiot who – after applying the pineapple – shoved its rough end square up the backside of the South Australian economy’.
Did Penberthy, or any of those unleashing their government-sanctioned fury on the man in question – later revealed to be a 36-year-old from Spain on a soon-to-expire student visa – stop to consider what might have motivated his alleged lie? In the cartoon worlds of social media and rightwing punditry, the question does not seem to have arisen. Yet the answer seems obvious enough. Saddled with insecure, poorly paid and possibly illegal work, is it any wonder a person would, in a moment almost certainly freighted more with fear than cunning, fudge the truth?
Over and over again, this pandemic has offered a simple lesson that we have refused to absorb: that precarious work with low pay and few, if any, protections is a blight on individuals and societies. Like our punitive welfare system, it distorts and dehumanises, makes individuals acutely vulnerable to health and financial stressors of all kinds, and is a disease vector. In a sane world, nobody would have to work all day in a hotel kitchen, then all night at a pizza bar, in order to scrape together a liveable wage. It is truly dispiriting to watch as other insecurely employed people round on this young man, as vivid a demonstration as you could want of how capital’s alienating effects pit worker against worker, and tear them away from their mutual economic interests.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explored the re-emergence of public shaming as a phenomenon of the internet age. He wrote that: ‘… with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.’ Scapegoating and pile-ons were not created by Facebook or Twitter but they have been repurposed and, in some ways, supercharged by them. Social media shamings speak to an ancient urge to punish and expunge, and to reduce complex, abstract problems to a scale more easily dealt with. But they rarely, if ever, help us to understand anything, or to bring justice to an unjust situation. The fact is, we are all fallible, both smart and stupid, capable of right and wrong. ‘[W]e need to think twice,’ says Ronson, ‘about raining down vengeance and anger as our default position.’
The boundaries between the internet and ‘real life’ are gossamer-thin. Within hours of online abuse being hurled at the young man at the centre of the lockdown reversal, police had turned up to monitor the pizza shop for signs of retribution. The same police, incidentally, who have now assigned no fewer than twenty detectives to seize the man’s mobile devices and find ways to punish him.
God help this man if he is doxxed. As it is, this mistake may dog him for years to come, and further entrench the social and economic disadvantage that brought about the whole situation in the first place. To fail to understand why he may have misled authorities is to fail to understand the nature of our broken employment system. To ‘rain down vengeance and anger’ on a hospitality workers, at least in the way our premier, Penberthy, and other South Australian media figures like Samela Harris have done, is a deeply repugnant expression of privilege.
In the end, such scapegoating serves only to distract – from the government’s mishandling of hotel quarantine, from the socio-economic fault-lines exposed by the coronavirus, and from where lies do the most damage, which, if the last four years have taught us anything, is always among those with the most power.
Image by Louis Hansel