Pandemic, race and moral panic

An Asian woman wears a surgical mask. She's touching her hand to the bottom of her chin as she looks off to the side

Since the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia in January 2020, I’ve been working on a couple of COVID-19 research posts for you. I was ready to post one of these on Monday, but I have decided to first address a race and public health response that is presently unfolding.(1)

In the afternoon of 4 July 2020, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, gave a press conference announcing that two more postcodes are being added to COVID-19 lockdown (making 12 in total) (McMillan & Mannix, 2020). The new postcodes under Stage-3 lockdown are 3031 Flemington and 3051 North Melbourne.

Additionally, the Victorian Government is effectively criminalising the poor: nine public housing towers are being put into complete lockdown. The Premier said: “There’s no reason to leave for five days, effective immediately.” This affects 1,345 public housing units, and approximately 3,000 residents.

Public housing lockdown is made under Public Order laws. Residents will be under police-enforced lockdown for a minimum of five days, and up to 14 days, to enable “everyone to be tested.”

How do we know this public housing order is about criminalising the poor, and driven by race? The discourse that the Premier used to legitimise this decision echoes historical moral panics and paternalistic policies that are harmful.

Let’s take a look at the moral panics over the pandemic in Australia, and how race and class are affecting the policing of “voluntary” testing.

I support continued social distancing, self-isolation for myself and others who can afford to work from home, quarantine for people who are infected so they can get the care they need without infecting others, and widespread testing for affected regions. These outcomes are best achieved through targeted public communication campaigns that address the misconceptions of the pandemic, the benefits of testing for different groups, making clear the support available for people who test positive, and addressing the structural barriers that limit people’s ability to comply with public health measures.

Moral panics

There have been multiple race moral panics following public health responses to the pandemic. A moral panic is a situation or group that is positioned as a threat to social values, usually in response to rising fear during periods of widespread social stress or change (Cohen, 1972; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994).

Sociologist Stanley Cohen (1972) demonstrates that moral panics follow a predicable formula of contradictory states:

  • Moral panics identify a new threat, but rely on old notions of “well-known evils;”
  • they are both damaging in themselves and representative of warning signs of a much deeper problem in society; and
  • they simultaneously point to a transparent issue that everyone can see, but one which poses an opaque threat that requires experts to explain the hidden perils.

Public leaders, elites, the media or other influential people will act as “moral entrepreneurs,” using negative stereotypes, rumours and accusations to assign blame to a “folk devil” accused of being responsible for perceived moral or social damage (Cohen, 1972). These influential people will call for punishment of “deviants,” and a return to imagined “proper” social norms. Such action, of course, serves to consolidate their social status and power.

COVID-19 has dusted up a predictable moral panic. Poor people, migrants, refugees and Aboriginal people are, on the one hand, positioned as vulnerable and in need of additional state intervention because they are at higher risk of infection. On the other hand, these disadvantaged groups are simultaneously characterised as “folk devils” who are responsible for spreading the infection. Either way, the moral panic is used to justify increased policing of disadvantaged groups.

As of 4 July 2020, the World Health Organisation (2020) reports 10.9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19; 523,011 confirmed deaths; and 216 countries, areas and territories with cases.

Map showing confirmed cases of the pandemic
Global rate of COVID-19 infection, 4 July 2020. Source: WHO

The first confirmed case in Australia was on 25 January 2020 (Commonwealth of Australia Department of Health, 2020). Victoria was the first state declare a state of emergency, on 16 March. Other states soon followed. International and domestic travel was heavily restricted from 19 March and soon halted altogether. The Federal Government officially announced that the pandemic was “deadly serious” on 22 March, and lockdown restrictions came into effect around the country.

To date, there have been 8,362 confirmed cases in Australia, 104 deaths, and 2.7 million tests conducted (Australian Government Department of Health, 2020). There have been 113 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours; 108 of these in the state of Victoria.

Infographic showing 8,362 total caes, 104 deaths, and 7,355 recovered. There are various graphs showing spikes over time, and a map of AUstralia, showing the biggest rates of infection today are in New South Wales overall, but highest new cases are in Victoria
Infographic of current status of confirmed cases in Australia, 4 July 2020. Source: Department of Health

The Australian Government has identified five groups to be at greater risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 (Department of Health, 2020). They are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people living in remote communities; older people; people in aged care facilities; people with chronic conditions or compromised immune systems; and people with disability.

A short history of moral panics during the pandemic

March-April 2020: Anti-Asian racism

As the outbreak spread, one-third of racism complaints to the Human Rights Commission were COVID-19-related and the Asian Australian Alliance COVID-19 Racism survey received 178 reports in its first two weeks in April 2020. Chinese Australians were being blamed for the virus, because the first recorded cases were in Wuhan, China. And yet the Government allowed multiple cruise ships to dock in Australia throughout March, without quarantining these 7,000 passengers.(2) One of these ships—the Ruby Princess—alone accounted for 10% of Australia’s national cases by the end of March (Zhou, 2020). It is these and other relatively wealthier overseas travellers who unwittingly spread the infection, not Asian-Australians specifically.

April 2020: fines in working class multicultural suburbs

In New South Wales, in early April, social distancing fines were being unevenly policed (Blakkarly, 2020). One third of infringements were being issued in highly multicultural suburbs, such as South-West Sydney, even though this region had a relatively low transmission rate. Yet the top four local government areas (Waverley, Northern Beaches, Inner West, and Randwick) had one quarter (23%) of locally acquired COVID-19 cases, but only one infringement. These are majority Anglo, White and affluent suburbs.

May-June 2020: Over-policing remote Aboriginal communities and Black Lives Matter protests

Aboriginal communities reported that they are being policed more severely than other groups. Aboriginal communities successfully implemented social distancing pre-emptively to protect their people, due to being at higher risk of COVID-19 (McQuire, 2020). As time evolved, racial inequalities of restrictions emerged. For example, in late May 2020, Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council, in Far North Queensland, sought an exemption from lockdown as they were unable to get essential items (Poposki, 2020). In mid-June, Aboriginal communities in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, were facing strong police sanctions and sought to have this lifted (Higgins & Timms, 2020). At the same time, Cape York in Far North Queensland wanted lockdown to remain, to protect vulnerable community members, but were not being adequately supported to do so (Faa, 2020).

On 5 June 2020, the New South Wales Police went to the Supreme Court and temporarily blocked the Black Lives Matter protests in metro Sydney, under the grounds of public health, citing the COVID-19 restrictions. The decision was overturned the following day, minutes before the protest was set to begin (Henriques-Gomes, 2020). Regardless, 10,000 protesters had already showed up (Regan et al., 2020). The protests around the country were organised by Aboriginal women, to shed light on Black deaths in custody. This too is a public health issue; 434 Aboriginal people have died at the hands of police, or due to their negligence, as well as being denied medical care whilst in custody (Zevallos, 2020). Yet public discussions have ignored this national emergency, blaming protests for the resurgence of COVID-19. This has been proven false by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer (Baker, 2020).

End June-early July 2020: lockdown of multicultural suburbs and policing social housing

At the end of June, the Victorian Government, which is dealing with a worrying rate of COVID-19 infection, re-introduced Stage-3 Restrictions for only 10 suburbs. Stage 3 means people in the 12 suburbs must always stay home, until at least 29 July (further restrictions below in Text Box 1).

Much like in New South Wales, these Victorian suburbs targeted for lockdown have a high number of migrant residents; however, these suburbs account for only half (52%) of the new confirmed cases (Baxendale, 2020). Targeting only multicultural suburbs for lockdown, but not others, is highly troubling.

Racist media commentators were quick to blame Muslims and Ramadan, as well as South Sudanese migrants for secret mass gatherings and hiding infections amongst families. None of this is remotely true (Boseley, 2020; Hope, 2020). For starters, the majority of South Sudanese in Australia are Christian, not Muslim. Yet religion and race are fuelling moral panic. The Premier himself specified that no one religion or ethnic group was responsible for the resurgence of cases in Victoria, giving an example of a wealthy (presumably White) family who returned from a holiday in Aspin and led to a new cluster (SBS News, 2020).

With the Andrews Government facing a dip in popularity due to the re-introduced restrictions, and questions about the mismanagement of hotel quarantine (Towell, 2020), it seems a populist show of power has reared its head.

Table showing a breakdown of total confirmed cases across Australia and new cases in the past 24 hours. Victoria has 108 of the national rate of 113 new cases
State and Territories report of total confirmed and new cases in the past 24 hours, 4 July 2020

Criminisation of the poor

As Daniels discussed that residents would be “fed and given what they need,” he also listed “drug and alcohol support.” Many people have alcohol and other drug issues, across all classes; but it’s only the poor who are overpoliced (Zevallos, 2012).

Daniels explained that public housing’s “common lifts, entrances and walkways” made lockdown the only logical measure the Government could consider. The Premier said:

“On expert advice by the Chief Health Officer, this presents an acute challenge going forward… This is not dissimilar to aged care if there’s an outbreak. Such is the vulnerability and susceptibility of residents in those towers… To do anything else would… pose an unacceptable risk to residents of those towers and the rest of Victoria.” [My emphasis]

– Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Here, poor people are being used as a scaremongering tool. A better approach would have been to address the public health requirements for testing early, tailoring information to different communities.

Poor people are (rightfully) distrustful of the Government. People who receive social welfare are in a precarious position. They are afraid of reporting to Government, and even reaching out for help when they experience financial hardship, for fear that they will lose their entitlements (Brennan et al., 2011). They have legitimate concerns because they live from pay to pay, and many are stuck in a cycle of poverty. They worry that their kids will be removed if they’re seen to be doing something wrong. It’s no wonder that, during a pandemic, they might be afraid of testing, especially when they don’t understand the nature of the pandemic, their data privacy and their rights. They might also fear that they might lose their jobs or be kicked out of social housing if they’re identified as being COVID-19 positive.

Additionally, migrants and refugees have many other reasonable fears of COVID-19 testing (Williams & Bridget Haire, 2020). For example, they may harbour trauma about government officials due to political persecution in their countries-of-origin. Plus, they have not received sufficient public health information from the Australian Government in their native languages.

Testing and misinformation

Many people misunderstand testing. Highly educated people (from university professors to executive directors of companies) have publicly complained about testing, the COVID app, and other public health decisions on grounds of “surveillance,” and other misunderstandings of public health measures. Health officials say conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are fuelling people’s refusal to be tested (Fowler & Bungard, 2020). In this light, over the past week, 10,000 people in the priority suburbs have refused to be tested. Is it any wonder? These suburbs are the only places in Australia that are being urged to be tested via door-to-door visits. Disparate treatment only heightens public distrust.

Around one-third of international travellers in quarantine in Melbourne hotels have refused testing; that’s 5,400 people (McCauley, 2020). By law, they must stay in quarantine for at least 14 days. At the end of June, it was revealed that most known cases could be traced back to the quarantine hotels, and so quarantine period for travellers is now 24 days. But they can still refuse to be tested at that time and they get to go home, free to move through the community if they are not in the priority suburbs under lockdown. Refusal to be tested is therefore commonplace, and not dictated by postcode or class.

Middle class people are equally likely to be misinformed about COVID-19, as are poor and working-class people; and yet affluent people happily air views, and take many health risks at huge department stores and packed beaches with little consequence (Cockburn, 2020; Smee, 2020). Poor people don’t simply get to ignore social distancing—and nor should they, nor anyone else! Yet it is only working class and disadvantaged people who have officials knocking at their door, and police barricading them in.

The public, across all sociodemographic groups, distrusts government. In fact, a study by the Australian National University found that, by December 2019, only 25% of Australians were confident in political leaders and institutions. This is a 40-year low in public trust in government (Australian Associated Press, 2019). But the pandemic has shown that only poor and working-class people—especially Aboriginal people, migrants and refugees—are being demonised and criminalised as a result of this erosion of trust.

Public health campaigns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic could have been more usefully dealt with public suspicion of health governance, instead of assuming everyone will just comply with testing and social distancing.

During the social housing announcement, the Premier said emphatically: “There is no mandatory testing.” However, he also said: “Door to door, every resident will be tested. If they don’t agree, the lockdown will be extended.”

All of this adds up to de facto mandatory testing through coercion.

  • Police oversee the operation.
  • No resident can leave their apartment, not even on compassionate grounds (but they will have medical care available).
  • The Premier warns these public housing tenants will be fined if they try to leave.
  • If people refuse to be tested, they will be required to stay locked in their houses for longer, and possibly this may extend to their entire building.

Differential treatment of “clusters”

Victorian rates of transmission are alarmingly high and require redress. But public housing tenants do not deserve to be singled out by brute force.

Overnight, Victoria recorded 108 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. That’s unacceptably high. The Government is right to take swift action. Yet less than one quarter are linked to the public housing estates. How is police barricade warranted?

The Deputy Chief Health Officer confirms 23 cases across the nine housing towers were linked to one COVID-19 cluster at start of the day on 4 July. She expects up to 30 cases by end day. However, more broadly, she also reports 389 active cases as a result of community transmission without a known source; this is an increase of 26 cases since yesterday. While troubling, these other clusters are not being forced into what’s effectively house arrest. That’s how we know this is an ill-conceived and discriminatory measure.

One of the journalists’ questions during the press conference alluded to the ways in which inequality can fuel transmission and, subsequently, lead to this heavy-handed policy response: public housing units are typically over-crowded because poor people have no other choice. They cannot self-isolate. They do not have sick leave. (As of 20 June, the Victorian Government is offering $1,500 support payment to people who self-isolate if they have no sick leave.(3) This is excellent, but it has been a recent initiative as yet not widely promoted.)

Widespread testing is important! But everyone should have the same rights. Public health legislation allows for individual autonomy to be overridden, which is why social distancing has been put into place. Our individual freedom to move through public spaces is not more important than the health of people most at risk of dying from this pandemic. Social distancing is our collective duty. But when we have only some residents being put into a precarious position led by police, we need to question the rationale.

On my social media, I have been regularly advocating for maintaining stricter social distancing, especially for all those who are able to work from home. I also promote testing for people with the mildest symptoms, and anyone living in priority suburbs with confirmed cases. I would happily support mandatory testing if that’s what’s required. At this point in time, however, Australia is not enforcing mandatory testing. The Victorian Government only set out to voluntarily test 50% of residents in the priority suburbs, regardless of symptoms. The rest of us are being urged to get tested if we show minor symptoms, if we’re in high-risk categories, or if we come into contact with known cases (see Text Box 3 below). We need to ask why only the most disadvantaged are being effectively forced to comply with testing while the rest of us are not.

It is understandable that some people are afraid of doorknocks asking for a genetic sample when they don’t know better. Testing is safe. People’s data and genetic material are protected by the Privacy Act. But even highly educated people don’t necessarily understand this. So why would other groups be expected to submit to testing?

Poor people cannot help it that they are forced to live in sub-optimal infrastructure. Many migrants and refugees live in these housing estates as they work to achieve some social mobility. With increased housing prices, it’s even harder for them to move out of these places than it was for those of us who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not luck, or hard work, that makes refugees or migrants upwardly mobile: it is the social policies and community infrastructures that are in place at the time we migrate. Social housing should not be a public health trap.

Why is the public housing measure a racist policy response?

The housing estates that are being locked down are in migrant majority suburbs. Almost half of Flemington residents are overseas born (47.3% compared to 33.3% of rest of Australia). Most of them are from Vietnam 5.2%, Ethiopia 3.3%, Somalia 2.2%, New Zealand 1.9%, and China (excluding SARs and Taiwan) 1.8% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017a). Many people from these top three groups have arrived in Australia as refugees. In North Melbourne, 58.3% of residents were born overseas. Mostly from China 13.5%, Malaysia 2.9%, Vietnam 2.4%, England 2.3%, and New Zealand 2.2% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017b). Coinciding with a rising racist moral panic about migrants being responsible for the mass infection (even though this is not true), this latest measure by the Andrews Government is paternalistic racism at its worst.

Anglo-majority suburbs are part of the active clusters and they have had far higher number of infected people at other points in the pandemic. But they do not have police at their doors. By the Victorian Government’s own analysis, a big source of transmission is traced back to security guards and staff working at quarantine hotels (Lucas & Booker, 2020). In recent days, it has been revealed that the private security companies running quarantine hotels did not go through a transparent tender process (Schneiders, 2020). Guards have been engaging in unethical and poor public health practices and received poor training.

The Victorian Government has done much good during the pandemic, but it has also made questionable decisions, specifically on policing. Targeting public housing tenants is a bad public health response.

Below is a table summarising how this racist moral panic has played out to date. Further down, I conclude with a brief discussion of paternalism.

Table 1: Construction of a moral panic of COVID-19

Sociological features of a moral panic*Construction of disadvantaged groups as folk devils of the pandemic
The moral threat is new: “hard to recognise; deceptively ordinary and routine, but invisibly creeping up the moral horizon”COVID-19 is a virus which does not discriminate, and yet its impact is disparately experienced by different social groups. As with all new infections, data on the spread and treatment of COVID-19 are evolving. But because it originates from Wuhan, China, Chinese people were blamed for its spread.   In reality, global interconnectedness of travel, under-resourcing of pandemic research and preparedness, have helped its spread.
The moral threat is old: “camouflaged versions of traditional and well-known evils”Racial minorities are positioned as the threat. Aboriginal protest is framed as uncivil, as it has been since invasion; the “yellow peril” discourses of the 1940s play out in blame of Chinese migrants; post 9-11 Islamophobia and mythical “African gangs” of the 2000s are blamed for unwillingness to test.   In fact, overseas travellers returning to affluent, White, Anglo-majority suburbs contributed to spread of infection and they continue to refuse testing at high rates.
The threat is damaging and a warning sign: it’s “a much deeper and more prevalent condition”The moral panic goes like this: Aboriginal people, migrants and refugees refuse to assimilate to Anglo norms and their actions put everyone else at risk. Poor people deserve can’t be trusted to self-isolate and need be punished.   This allows for state mismanagement of quarantine to fly under the radar, and for middle class and affluent people to evade Stage-3 lockdowns, which have made the Government unpopular.
The moral threat is transparent, but its true nature is also opaque: there’s an evident problem but only “accredited experts must explain the perils hidden behind the superficially harmless”Everyone can see that there is a virus impacting everyone across the world, but many people also misjudge the extend of personal risk. People also mistrust the Government’s decisions about restrictions.   It is more palatable to use folk devils (multicultural suburbs, residents in social housing) to lockdown some suburbs to get ahead of testing, rather than doing the inevitable, which is to put the entire state of Victoria back into lockdown, and making testing more widely accepted
*Adapted from Cohen (1972)

Benevolent paternalism

During the press conference, Andrews used the term “vulnerable” multiple times, along with similar familiar phrases:

  • “It’s in their best interests”
  • “We’re protecting them”

Benevolent paternalism has been a key narrative used to facilitate racist policies since invasion . This phrase refers to the state creating policies on the premise that the Government is better able to make decisions on behalf of citizens, by largely restricting or removing the autonomy of individuals (Thomas & Buckmaaster, 2010).

People do not make optimal choices for good reasons (e.g. due to poverty). Let’s address structural inequality, but without penalising the poor. By Premier Daniel Andrews’ own words, the problem is structural inequality quite literally: it is the social housing buildings that create a public health emergency (“Common lifts, entrances and walkways”).

The federal Government has housed returning overseas travellers into 5-star hotels as part of its quarantine strategy. It’s telling that this does not seem to be an option for public housing residents, even though their homes, built and maintained under Government contract, are inadequate. Instead, the poor will stay shut up in sub-optimal housing.

The problem with social housing infrastructure is well documented. Governments saw fit not to fix this. Knowing the risks, officials did not act to protect public housing tenants at the beginning of the pandemic. And now disadvantaged people bear the consequences.

This is inequality by design.


1) Today’s post draws on, and expands, my various social media posts in recent months.

2) 3,500 from The Ovation of the Season 18 March; 2,700 from the Ruby Princess on 19 March; others from Voyager of the Seas on 18 March; and 850 from the Artania on 27 March. While all of these carried infected passengers who disembarked across Australia, the Ruby Princess led to 662 positive cases, five of whom died by 30 March (Wahlquist, 2020; Zhou, 2020).

3) Department of Health and Human Services Victoria, 2020a.

Text Box 1: Stage-3 restrictions in Victoria, as of 4 July 2020

If you live in the restricted zones

Restrictions are evolving daily, so please check your state Health Department website for the most up-to-date advice. Here are the rules for Victoria (Department of Health and Human Services Victoria, 2020b).

✔️From 11:59pm Wednesday, you must stay home at all times until at least 29 July.
✔️You can only travel for 4 activities: to go to work or school if you can’t do this from home; for caregiving; daily exercise; and to buy food and other essentials. This includes going to the doctor, the chemist, supermarket.
✔️While you can travel to other suburbs, the travel restrictions above apply to you at all times, regardless of where you go.
✔️While you may exercise daily, you can only do so with one other person outside your household (but you can exercise outdoors with all members of your household).
✔️Tradespeople can come to your home, but you must both observe social distancing rules.
✔️Restaurants and cafes remain open, but can only serve take-away food.
✔️Hairdressers and barbers remain open, but other services will be closed. This includes: pubs, libraries, community centres, places of worship, gyms, cinemas, etc. No sporting matches, recreational activities (e.g. fishing), or public events.
✔️If you are already away on holidays, you can continue to stay where you are (noting that the restrictions above will still apply to you!). But if you haven’t left, you cannot go on holidays.
✔️You can travel to a wedding or funeral, and observe the local restrictions
✔️In the restricted postcodes, only five people may attend a wedding (couple, 2 witnesses and celebrant). Only 10 guests can attend a funeral in the restricted suburbs.
✔️Police have the powers to stop you and provide explanation for your travel.
✔️International flights will be diverted from Melbourne for the next 14 days. If you have family or friends returning from overseas, please do not visit their household during lockdown.

If you want to travel to the restricted zones

If you live outside of the restricted zones, you are bound by the rules above:
✔️If you live elsewhere, but travel into the restricted suburbs, you can only do so to carry out the four essential activities.
✔️You are not allowed to travel into the restricted suburbs to visit friends and family. The only exception is caregiving or compassionate grounds, or for providing services or for work.
✔️You can visit your partner in the restricted zone, but must abide by the restriction laws at Level 3.
✔️Everyone is being asked to connect with loved ones via online methods or phone, rather than visiting households in these areas.
✔️You can be fined if you live outside of these restricted zones, but enter it to do something outside of the list of four activities. Please don’t risk this!

There is lack of clarity on travel for people who share caring responsibilities across suburbs (such as divorced parents). Previously in Level 3, this was allowed.

Text Box 2: Racism, policing and your rights in Victoria

The rates of COVID-19 infection are a grave cause for concern and should be troubling for all of us. This is a recipe for injustice, as we already know racial and religious minorities are already over-targeted by police. Early in the pandemic, it was overwhelmingly poor people of colour who were fined, even as White people overcrowded beaches and shopping centres.

While this is unfair, and the rest of the country is watching, please know your rights.

✔️At any given time, police can ask you for your name and address. That is the ONLY information you are required to give by law.
✔️The police can stop and search you under certain conditions. If they ask to search you, ask them to give you a reason
✔️Anyone can film police. Police cannot ask you to stop filming them, even if they ask you questions or stop to search you.
✔️Children must have a guardian present when they are being questioned by police.
✔️If police stop you about why you’re outside your house in a restricted zone, they have the power to fine you if you don’t meet the four criteria. Do not fight them. Stay calm. Don’t swear or yell at them (they can fine you for this!). You can film them, but don’t do so in a way that obstructs their job (you can be arrested for this). You can contest the fine later, when you are safe.
✔️Learn more about your rights  

Suggested citation

Zevallos, Zuleyka (2020) ‘Pandemic, race and moral panic,’ The Other Sociologist, 5 July, online resource available at:


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