Media Representations of Race and the Pandemic

Sign saying 'stop the spread' with Chinese writing. In a background is a playground

In Episode 3 of Race in Society (video below), Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I spoke with Dr Summer May Finlay and Dr Karen Schamberger about how mainstream media create sensationalist accounts of the pandemic, and spread a moral panic about racialised people. A moral panic is when a group or an event is seen as a threat to social values, usually in a time of great social change, such as the pandemic. A moral panic whips up fear of particular groups, especially racial minorities. At the same time, it protects the interests of people at the top of the racial hierarchy, which in Australia, is white people of European descent. Even though we filmed this discussion 10 months ago, the commentary illuminates the current COVID-19 crisis.

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 workers, who do not have the luxury of working from home. Similarly to what happened in the harsh 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).

In early-July, 200 police were sent to South Western Sydney, where at least half the population was born overseas, to enforce the Public Health Order. 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, 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 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.

Public discourse about the COVID-19 outbreaks continues to be racially coded in media and in press conferences. 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.

Today, I detail the racialised dynamics of the current outbreak, and then delve into our Race in Society series, where experts place the pandemic into broader context.

Dr Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman and Public Health Researcher at the Universities of Wollongong and Canberra. In the video below, she details how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations have effectively dealt with COVID-19 using social marketing campaigns.

We also spoke with Dr Karen Schamberger; an independent curator and historian. She covers the history of Australian sinophobia (the fear of China, its people and or its culture), and how anti-Chinese racism plays out in media reports on racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue remains pertinent, given that the suburbs under strict lockdown have relatively large Asian populations.

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Public Sociology and the Pandemic

Oil painting of a subway sign about COVID-19. It shows an imprint of two hands. The message reads: have you washed your hands?

It’s been a long while! Over the past couple of months, in my paid work, I’ve been co-leading a large randomised control trial in public health. Hoping we can publish results in the new year. Our team is also busy researching issues of technology and safety. In my personal research, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I wrapped up series 1 of Race in Society. We covered media representations; the lockdown and ableism; intersectionality; policing; and economics. I’ll bring you write ups of other episodes soon, or head to our YouTube to watch the videos.

In case you missed it, here are two interviews I gave earlier in the year, on the sociology of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the topics of moral panics and misinformation remain relevant.

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Indigenous Sovereignty and Responses to COVID-19

People march during the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. One man holds up a sign. Another person holds up a large Aboriginal flag

In Episode 2 of Race in Society, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are joined by Jill Gallagher, Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), who are leading COVID-19 pandemic responses in Victoria. She discusses how the pandemic amplifies existing health and social inequalities. Also on the panel is sociologist, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who is Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University, and author of countless critical race books, including, The White Possessive‘. She demonstrates how her theorisation of Aboriginal sovereignty disrupts how the pandemic is currently understood. Finally, we also speak with sociologist Dr Debbie Bargallie, Senior research fellow at Griffith University, and author of the excellent new release, ‘Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service.’ She talks about how Aboriginal people are excluded from social policy, which has compounded poor decision-making on public health during the pandemic.

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Race in Society

Protesters wear masks at Hyde Park in Sydney. One man's t-shirt reads: Black Lives Matter Here Too

Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are both sociologists and we’ve launched a new webseries called “Race in Society.” The first season is dedicated to “Race and COVID-19.” In this first episode, we cover the inspiration for the series and why we are focusing on the pandemic.

In the video below, Alana explains how our idea for Race in Society came about. We were noticing an increased interest in critical race studies among academics, students, and the broader public. Much of this discussion replicates ideas of race from North America, which is not necessarily applicable to Australia.

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Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

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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.

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