Trust, community and a sense of common purpose is all that stands between the Australian public and a deadly second wave of the novel coronavirus.
Splashing the names, faces and personal details of people who have defied border closures to carry COVID-19 from outbreak areas on the front page of Brisbane's Courier Mail under the incendiary headline "Enemies of the state" not only undermines this fragile balance, it poses a far greater risk to our collective health than the virus.
While scientists race for a vaccine and effective treatments, looking to the virus for flaws, epidemiologists and public health doctors have their eyes on the bigger prize, and that's the host. Us. How we behave dictates whether COVID-19 can survive; adapting swiftly, and in unison, holds our best hope of success.
The essential ingredient to a successful public health strategy is trust, at every level. Containment is an unglamorous enterprise at its heart, and it pivots on a very simple mantra: test, trace, isolate, treat.
We know that this formula works because we have done it before, leading the world with our response to HIV. In contrast to other Western nations, Australia's strategy was predicated on consultation, partnership with, and empowerment of affected communities, not moralising and criminalisation.
That approach, now upheld as an exemplar in health promotion, focused on education, counselling and case management, with public health orders and detention used rarely, as a last resort. Then, as now, detractors demanded punitive measures, insisting that people would only do the right thing (in that case, wearing condoms) if it were a crime not to.
It is a testament to the leaders of the day, and to those at the forefront of the community-led response, that they resisted the impulse, instead placing faith in the population to do the right thing, which they did, because they were invested in both the process and the outcome.
Known as responsive regulation, research has shown that these least-coercive approaches work best in earning, and maintaining, public trust.
Trust is everything at this critical moment in our coronavirus response, and it ought not be squandered in the tabloid thirst for clicks, scapegoating and demonising infected people with reductive, xenophobic tropes that only serve to deepen race and class divides.
Dog-whistle doxxing puts all of us at risk. It sends the message to marginalised communities that, if they come forward for testing, their identities are fair game for moralising, mere grist to the mill of the culture wars.
Privacy becomes a luxury afforded only to a certain class and character of person, those who can afford ski trips and summer cruises. Everyone else is an "enemy of the state" to be pilloried in the public square as a warning to us all.
The insistence that, because the women in question were allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise, they deserve the treatment meted out to them, is a dangerous precedent to contemplate. It implies that due process is not a right but something to be adjudicated by the mass media and withheld on a populist whim.
Maintaining public trust
Privacy is central to the provision of health care, and the therapeutic relationship. People seek care on the proviso that their confidence is sacred, and the same applies in public health.
Co-operation with mammoth efforts to test, trace and isolate COVID-19 cases rests on a tacit understanding that information shared with officials will be handled sensitively and discreetly. Without this assurance, the dance is lost, and so too our best - indeed only - chance at containing the novel coronavirus.
Trust begets testing begets tracing begets success.
This matters not just at an individual level but, as we have seen with HIV, in engaging marginalised communities. The Queensland Human Rights Commission has warned of a "second wave of COVID-related racial hostility", with members of Brisbane's African community reporting increasing harassment in the wake of the coverage, and the women themselves receiving death threats and calls for summary execution.
Sensationalised media coverage has long been the engine room of HIV stigma, but we engage in naming and shaming at our peril, losing sight of the structural drivers that have allowed this pandemic to rip through the same populations the world over: a growing precariat of essential workers without a safety net. SARS-CoV-2 does not discriminate in who it infects, but we socially select for its spread, and then seek to condemn on the basis of circumstance.
Blaming individuals is cheap and easy, for the media and politicians alike. It doesn't require any kind of critical thinking or impulse for reform, it allows governments to evade responsibility for failings that have contributed to or driven the outbreak. Daniel Andrews' "we are all in this together" turns to "disappointment in these individuals not doing the right thing".
But blame becomes a feedback loop, encouraging punitive responses which generate further media coverage, reinforcing blame. It offers justification for sending police into housing estates, detaining citizens under military guard, suppressing protests and "surveillance creep", which is difficult if not impossible to wind back. It also serves as a perverse incentive, emboldening individualistic rhetoric that privileges personal freedoms above the common good (let's call it the "Bunnings Karens effect").
Once we set foot down that path, it will be extremely difficult to recover the collective mindset we need to overcome this crisis.
Trust in the process isn't all that matters, we also need to trust one another. Breaching public health orders places that fragile bond in peril, but polarising communities and feeding vigilante impulses poses a far greater risk.
In a time of crisis, the media plays an essential civic role. Eschewing that for tired culture-war tropes is not only seriously poor judgment, it's myopic self-service with potentially fatal consequences.
- Amy Coopes is a medical student, journalist and editor at Croakey Health Media, a social journalism collective for health. Daniel Reeders is a health promotion strategist and PhD candidate at the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet).