Blame and COVID-19?

Blame and COVID-19?

Terry Slevin, PHAA CEO

We remain in the midst of the world’s worst health crisis in a century. Millions of cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed around the world and hundreds of thousands of deaths have ensued. So, who should we blame?

Well, I think a more important question is, where does blame get us?

With the second wave of COVID-19 cases being diagnosed in Melbourne in the past week, we’ve seen a steady growth of wise cracks, then jokes and more recently fears, and even panic, linked to exposure to people from Victoria and those who have been there.

Lockdown of suburbs, apartment towers and state borders has cranked up the public health response aimed at minimising the spread of the virus. None of these measures are welcome, and come as a difficult blow for some vulnerable groups in particular, but they are essential to protect Victorians – indeed all Australians – from the risk of uncontrolled pandemic spread.

So too does the experience in Victoria lend some support to those states who have, despite enormous pressure to the contrary, kept borders closed.

It is very easy to see how similar second waves could occur in other parts of Australia. Essential services are continuing, as of course they should. That means vital workers in transport (truckies hauling essential goods around the country), health care, aged care and other workers continue to go about their business. And despite their very best efforts, there is some level of risk of exposure to and transmission of the virus.

The strategies of physical distancing, heightened personal and community hygiene, contact tracing and quarantine and isolation of cases and those at high risk remain our best tools for fighting this virus. But no one should pretend they are perfect.

And in that scenario, laying blame when outbreaks occur not only doesn’t help, it probably hinders the battle against COVID-19.

Asking how a viral transmission occurs is vitally important. Understanding the route of transmission informs decisions about the next best steps.  But that is a million miles away from figuring out who to blame.

And way too much blame is being thrown around.

Blame the politicians, blame the people who have the disease (especially if they are already discriminated against), blame a whole state, blame another country, or the health officials on the front line.

Blame seems to have evolved into a national, even international sport.

But this rush to blame is most likely to drive behaviour and responses which make things worse, not better. If me, or someone in my workplace, family or social circle are diagnosed with COVID-19 and I sense this blame culture, how open will I be when it comes to efforts to understand how the virus was transmitted? How comfortable would any of us all feel, in being completely honest in disclosing where we have been, what we have been doing and with whom?

No one wants to be blamed, or to accept the blame when things go wrong. And yet it seems to be the first question asked. Always.

Let’s look at where we are at and where we have come from. We remain at infection levels that are the envy of much of the world, including other wealthy developed nations. Even with the growing numbers in Victoria this week.

Let’s also accept that it remains entirely possible, even likely, that similar outbreaks will occur elsewhere.

And if (when) they do, let’s reflect on how we responded to the first wave, and to this second wave, and think about what worked. Let’s continue to focus on making things better, instead of looking to find who should take the brunt of the blame. If we do that, will we not be better placed to constructively tackle the inevitable challenges ahead?

The current and palpable levels of anxiety and frustration are growing and concerning.  It could give rise to an environment where things might potentially get worse. Much worse.

Like most Australians I have friends, family, and colleagues in Melbourne. My son lives there. I fear for their health and wellbeing. This is clearly tough. Now is the time to step up and help.  Help, don’t blame.

Phone a friend, reach out to a Victorian, show them you care, offer a kind word, do something practical that might make things better, even just a little.  Ask what they need. Dust off that zoom password and show them a smile.

Might we now, today, take a deep breath, draw upon our very best selves, and focus on solving this enormous health challenge constructively, fairly, in an open, honest, balanced way – and dare I say, with compassion and an open heart?


Image credit: ABC News, Simon Winter


Terry-SlevinTerry Slevin 

Terry Slevin is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University and Adjunct Professor in the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University.

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