Race, Class and the Delta Outbreak

Entrance to a supermarket. Stickers on the ground say "please stand here." Workers are busy in the background

This post explores how race and class impact media discourses of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reports have selectively focused on migrants and working class people linked to specific infection chains. Race and class are absent from media narratives involving white, middle class, and wealthy people, even when these events account for high rates of infection and trangression of COVID-19 rules. This analysis shows how inequality is reproduced and normalised through institutions, such as the media.

Policy context

Three states in Australia are presently under a strict COVID-19 lockdown: New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. New South Wales is experiencing a major Delta variant outbreak, which is highly contagious. It has spread to the other states through working-class people, who do not have the luxury of working from home. Similarly to what happened in the Melbourne lockdown in 2020, residents in migrant communities have been placed into a tougher lockdown relative to others, even as they are required to continue working, and submit to COVID testing every three days (“surveillance testing”).

Public discourse about the COVID-19 outbreaks continues to be racially coded in media articles and in press conferences. This contributes to a moral panic about racialised people. Blame is placed on multicultural communities for not listening to public health messages, even though the majority of cases originate in ‘essential’ workplaces that are not required to shut down. As some communities remain confused about public health messages, state responses have been heavily criticised for not promoting culturally-appropriate public communication campaigns, while targeting migrants with a heavy police presence.

In early-July 2021, 200 police were sent to South Western Sydney, where at least half the population are migrants. Since then, reports on infringement notices feature in the daily press conferences. This did not happen at the beginning of this latest outbreak, when infection was exclusively spreading in Bondi, an affluent suburb where the majority of residents are white, Anglo-Australians.

On the morning of 24 July 2021, the New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner announced 246 people had received infringement notices in the past 24 hours, highlighting the case of a grieving family gathering to mourn, implying they were from a non-English speaking background. The Minister for Health spoke heavily about ‘multicultural’ communities not following the rules by visiting family members who don’t live in the same house. By the afternoon, 3,500 anti-lockdown protesters marched through central Sydney without masks, being violent, and yet only 90 people initially received infringement notices, and 57 people were arrested. The race of the protesters—who were overwhelmingly white—has not been a focus of media reports.

Delta outbreak

The origins of the current national emergency began on 16 June 2021, with two initial cases in Bondi. A private driver who works with international flight crew became infected., followed by his wife. The driver was reprimanded by media and officials for not wearing a mask and for not being vaccinated (quarantine workers, including drivers, are mandated to be vaccinated). However, his employers were not subject to this scrutiny, and the broader ongoing problem with quarantine system, which is a federal government responsibility, was not given the same attention. Rightfully, the Bondi driver’s race, language and ethnicity was not the leading story.

The virus spread across Bondi over the following four weeks. Experts agreed from inception that the Bondi outbreak was serious, and very different to previous outbreaks, because it was the Delta variant. The community was encouraged to stay home and get tested; however, Bondi was not placed into a tough lockdown. There wasn’t a focus on handing out fines, or otherwise policing Bondi residents, even as they continued to go out in droves. Bondi is a white, Anglo-Australian majority suburb. The whiteness of the community was not villainised.

By 18 June 2021, the rest of metropolitan Sydney was placed on elevated restrictions due to the Bondi outbreak. Throughout this time, Bondi residents continued to move around, without adhering to social distancing rules. However, when ethnic minorities broke the rules – even momentarily – their names and images are published by the media, in a way that did not happen in Bondi.

On 8 July 2021, three removalists from Sydney travelled from Victoria into New South Wales and South Australia while knowingly infectious. In mid-July, another two Sydney removalists travelled into regional New South Wales after testing positive for COVID-19. The media has heavily focused on the latter two removalists’ Arabic background. Critiques of ‘multicultural communities’ followed. The two removalists are brothers. Their family say that they did not understand the phone call from New South Wales Health informing them about their positive COVID-19 test, due to low English language proficiency, and they requested NSW Health contact their boss. The brothers’ names have been made public, despite the fact that their mother died of COVID-19 after the case was made public, their father has also since tested positive.

The same is not true of the three removalists who travelled into state. They have been charged and face court proceedings, however, their ethnicity, and their community by extension, are not under trial by media.

The Australian media has been relentless in naming and shaming index cases, including the driver who was the first person infected in the Bondi outbreak. This is reprehensible. Yet the media and police go one step further, by relishing the opportunity to punish migrants.

Racialised lockdown

On 9 July 2021, metropolitan Sydney was placed into an even stricter lockdown. All office workers were ordered to work from home. On 17 July, three suburbs from South Western Sydney were given stronger restrictions, with only essential workers allowed to leave their local area, but only if they submit to COVID testing every three days. The majority of currently infected people live in South Western Sydney and Western Sydney suburbs. These suburbs have a predominantly non-English speaking population. For example, 69% of Liverpool residents were born overseas, with the biggest groups from Iraq, India, and Fiji. Similarly, 60% of Fairfield residents were born overseas, primarily in Vietnam, Iraq, and Cambodia, and 50% of Canterbury-Bankstown residents were born overseas, primarily in Lebanon, Vietnam, and China. While the Government recognises that these residents are ‘essential workers’ who are keeping the economy running, a strong police presence was announced for South Western Sydney.

Since then, infringement notice reports feature daily at news conferences.

Tougher lockdowns, surveillance testing of essential workers, and penalties were not a daily feature of press conferences and media coverage when the majority of COVID cases were in Bondi. Even now, with the entire metropolitan Sydney population under lockdown (and South Western Sydney under even stricter limits), affluent white-majority suburbs flout lockdown rules (see Coogee below).

Unlike other states, New South Wales has resisted defining ‘essential workers’ throughout the pandemic. The first list was provided on 17 July, only to be expanded two days later, after ‘consultation with businesses.’

Further lockdowns were imposed on three regional towns on 21 July (Blayney, Cabonne and Orange), but, unsurprisingly as they are white-majority areas, the announcement came without the threat of extra policing. Just three days later, on 24 July, Cumberland (58% overseas born) and Blacktown (44% overseas-born and a sizeable Aboriginal population), have been placed on the same restrictions as the three other South Western Sydney suburbs.

Working class burden

People in precarious jobs cannot simply work from home. Health officials continue to report that workplaces are the key ‘seeding’ events (where infections originate), and that infected workers then transmit the disease across the community via their households. The pandemic continues to illustrate how race and class inequality function: there is a general lack of protection of working-class workers (class), and most working-class ‘essential workers’ are racial minorities (race).

When white people are caught doing the wrong thing, their race is never mentioned by the media. However, when racial minorities are involved, their communities are implicated. South Western Sydney mayors say that this is a ‘double standard.’

Lebanese Muslim Association president Samir Dandan says the police response is ‘disproportionate’: ‘This is highly problematic and reinforces the experience of this community being over-policed and continues to create heightened sensitivities around the over-scrutinisation of these communities.’

The South Australian outbreak started on 18 July, when a man arrived in Australia from Argentina, and was isolated into a New South Wales quarantine hotel (due to the pandemic, the majority of international arrivals come via Sydney International Airport). After becoming injured in quarantine, he was taken to a New South Wales hospital, and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

The spread of infection is exacerbated by the lack of protection for working-class people, especially racial minorities, in quarantine jobs, aged care, healthcare, and other essential services. Quarantine safety and vaccination are both the responsibility of the federal Government.

Media and officials continue to blame racial minorities in a way that does not feature for white-majority communities. For a deeper look at how this plays out, revisit our Race in Society series, which delves into this head on, in Media Representations of Race and the Pandemic.


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