TASMANIAN police issued two large fines to interstate travellers who refused to wear masks at Hobart Airport last week, defying COVID-19 regulations.
My first reaction when I read the ABC report was the two men got what they deserved. And they probably did.
In separate incidents, they had been asked to put a mask on and refused. One claimed he had a medical exemption, but could not provide evidence.
I found myself reflecting, though, on the sneaky jolt of pleasure I had felt at reading about the combined $2300 in fines the men received.
It’s a normal feeling perhaps, but not a particularly edifying one.
Anger at the men’s apparent lack of concern for others may well be justified, but enjoyment of their punishment seems to reflect less admirable qualities. Not quite knitting in front of the guillotine, but not exactly in tune with contemporary ideas about the purpose of punishment in the justice system either.
Our response to punishment of others tends to be conditioned by how much we identify with those being punished.
I may not have empathised with the two travellers to Hobart, but I did feel for the 17-year-old Victorian fined for non-essential travel because her mother gave her a driving lesson earlier in the pandemic (that fine was later withdrawn).
Last week’s parliamentary report into Victoria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more questions about the role punishment plays in managing a health crisis.
The report shows striking inequalities in the distribution of COVID-19-related fines in Victoria, with 0.73% per capita of the total number of fines issued between April and September occurring in local government areas with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage, compared with just 0.36% in areas with low levels of disadvantage.
That statistic on its own raises more questions than it answers. Was compliance lower or were there just more fines? Are those areas more intensely policed? Were police in some areas more likely to give a fine rather than a warning? Were changing restrictions adequately communicated, given the large number of residents who do not speak English as a first language in the most-represented suburbs?
The report does not have the answers, though it did make some tentatively worded recommendations that Fines Victoria consider publishing its review of the infringement process and Victoria Police consider releasing deidentified demographic data related to COVID-19 enforcement.
A number of submissions to the inquiry certainly argued policing of COVID-19 restrictions had disproportionately affected vulnerable communities and groups.
Enforcement activities were more likely to cause rifts in the community, rather than act as a deterrent, the Sacred Heart Mission argued, while Liberty Victoria submitted reports of police issuing infringements in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner.
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said police should prioritise providing public health messaging and supporting people to comply with the current restrictions.
“Arresting people will not achieve positive outcomes,” its submission said.
More broadly, the parliamentary report also expressed concern the threat of large fines might actually deter people from getting tested or being honest with contact tracers.
Punitive measures may be a necessary part of the response to a crisis like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but they are not an end in themselves.
Their purpose is to protect us. If they’re not doing that, they’ve failed, no matter how much we may enjoy seeing them applied to others.
Transparency around the enforcement of restrictions is essential if we’re to properly assess their impact, and that includes demographic data.
Australia likes to pretend it is a classless society, but it’s in all our interest to make sure that longstanding delusion does not obscure the many intersections between socio-economic disadvantage and areas such as public health and administration of the justice system.
Jane McCredie is a science and health writer based in Sydney.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.