Site of COVID scapegoating Woodville Pizza Bar, Adelaide (Image: Woodville Pizza Bar)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the midst of the pandemic, it’s that our nation loves a scapegoat.

Allegedly randy security guards, fraudulent quarantine fugitives, or the pizza shop worker blamed for a state-wide lockdown, experts say our habit of pointing the finger at individuals just distracts us from a range of broader issues. And for those who bear the brunt, the public pile-on can be debilitating.

Our most recent victim was brought into the spotlight on Sunday when SA chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier wrongly accused a man of breaching quarantine rules. Unsurprisingly, public comment swiftly unleashed a tirade of vilification for the man’s infectious “shopping spree”.

One Facebook user suggested we “start locking these pricks up for breaking quarantine”, while others wanted to take it into their own hands by demanding his name and address.

That was until Monday morning when Spurrier publicly apologised to the man — who she revealed had actually done nothing wrong — and thanked him for his continued cooperation with contract tracers. 

Alas, the shopping spree scapegoat paled in comparison to SA’s pizza shop worker who became an infamous mascot for the state’s brief but harsh lockdown last month. When Premier Steven Marshall lifted restrictions three days early, he accused the worker of “lying” to contact tracers.

In an inflammatory press conference, Marshall claimed they were “absolutely livid with the actions of this individual” and planned to hold him accountable. Police Commissioner Grant Stevens then needlessly specified the individual was a 36-year-old Spanish visa holder. 

Emerging from three days of cabin fever, fuelled by the words of a “fuming” premier, SA mobs picked up their virtual pitchforks and terrorised every possible online platform of the Woodville Pizza Bar and its “deceitful” employee. Much like we saw with the disgraced trio of women who allegedly evaded quarantine when returning from Melbourne to Queensland in July, this small piece of identification opened him up to an unproductive onslaught of public abuse.

Marshall’s promise to “throw the book” at the worker has seemingly been forgotten. South Australia Police said SA Health is unable to provide the evidence needed to build a case, due to the confidentiality of contact tracing interviews. But while he won’t face legal charges, the aftermath has changed the worker’s life considerably.

His lawyer Scott Jelbert says the man is now “in hiding and he’s not coming out, at least for the time being”.

“Those that have identified him, and a lot of people have, have contacted him and it’s been overwhelming.”

Jelbert says his client is “not out for blood”, but understandably is looking for an opportunity to “set the record straight” and return to some sort of normalcy.

University of Sydney lecturer in bioethics Dr Diego Silva says releasing identifiable characteristics about the pizza shop worker was dangerous and did not make sense from a public health viewpoint.

“One of the things they teach you in public health is don’t reveal personal information unless you absolutely positively have to,” said Silva. “In this case, it just doesn’t seem like these facts needed to be revealed.”

CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) Ross Womersley argues that by placing the blame at the foot of a single worker, SA’s health authorities run the risk of spreading a number of unhelpful messages:

“It didn’t address the systemic issues that we know are in play, and it actually created a new risk: that people would be less likely to identify and present for testing because they’d be worried about being shamed.”

A coalition of SA organisations including SACOSS have since written an open letter to Marshall, saying “the initial response from the government has led some in our community to vindictively turn on that individual and it has drawn attention away from the structural conditions of work that have contributed to the transmission of COVID in our state and country”.

Womersly points out that countless systemic factors come into play that can lead an individual to the circumstances in which they contract the virus.

“In this instance, we can be reasonably confident that one major factor is the lack of security in their income,” he said.

These cases have once again brought the instability of employment — particularly in migrant communities — to light, with people in high-risk roles operating across multiple workplaces out of necessity.

South Australia’s mishandling has echoed the failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system, which saw the virus spread through security staff working additional jobs. Instead of addressing these serious structural flaws, we’ve watched the attention be diverted to one victim.

University of South Australia public health researcher Alison Barrett says that moving forward there needs to be a shift in the way health information is relayed to the public in order to maintain trust.

“Because of the way they reacted to that individual, for me, a bit of trust in the system has decreased,” she said.

“Clear, consistent … evidence-based approaches to communication — without individual blaming — are going to work best, along with building trust while reducing fear.”

We’re still in this for some time yet, so our public health system needs to be a resource we can rely on, without fear of being lynched for mistakes largely out of individual control.

Although personal responsibility is important, Dr Silva says, “you also can’t divorce that from context”.

“To not consider the broader determinants of the spread of disease is folly.”