Life with COVID-19: Abuse expected to rise in the home, but what about outside of it?

This blog is part of a series relating to the economic impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

In a previous blog, we discussed the rise in domestic and family violence in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the lives of Australians. Additional stress and pressure on everyday life coupled with reduced access to coping mechanisms is a nightmare scenario for many Australians. For those with existing mental health conditions this is an especially hard situation, but even those who have not previously suffered are at greater risk. The overall level of uncertainty and stress we are all experiencing has increased but some Australians are taking this stress out on others in abusive and violent ways. 

We wrote about the increase of abusive and violent behaviours in the home but what about outside of the home? Reports have been emerging of disturbing behaviour by some Australians throughout this crisis: you may remember the toilet paper fiasco turned Woolworths brawl that led to two NSW women being charged earlier this year. However, in recent days several new incidents of abuse have been reported that were specifically directed at workers providing essential services. In one report, a regional pharmacist was spat on and punched in the face, in another a pregnant midwife was abused at a McDonald’s drive-thru, and another detailed a grocery store worker who was coughed on and abused for trying to enforce social distancing. Many other incidents have also occurred, including people spitting on nurses in uniforms while waiting to be screened for coronavirus. Nurses and midwives are being advised not to wear scrubs to or from work after several recent incidents of verbal and physical abuse linked to their status as health workers and beliefs that they are ‘spreading the virus’. 

For the pharmacists and grocery store workers, many of the incidents are arising in relation to stock shortages and limits on the quantity of medicine allowed to be purchased, with customers taking their frustrations out on the person they perceive to be responsible. For some workers, this is not an occasional incident but consistent, daily experiences of abuse and misconduct being directed at them while they are undertaking their duties. One pharmacist said that some of her workers are understandably unable to cope with this and have quit, but many are forced to choose between job security and their physical and emotional wellbeing.

The situation is so bad that NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard announced today that NSW Police would issue a $5000 on-the-spot fine for anyone ‘deliberately spitting or coughing on frontline workers’ as well as up to six months in prison. The change to the Public Health Regulation 2012 was signed today after an “urgent” request from NSW Health as well as unions for health workers and police. Health Minister Greg Hunt also condemned the behaviour with a reminder that anyone deliberately transmitting coronavirus could face up to life in prison.  

These incidents are putting further strain on the vital workforce keeping our country functioning amid this pandemic. Many on the frontlines are already facing the stress of continued exposure to the possibility of contracting the virus as well as exhausting and unrelenting work demands, but these violent and abusive outbursts have the potential to further undermine the health and wellbeing of people just trying to serve. We have discussed the emerging mental health crisis related to coronavirus and this culture of violence is not an acceptable byproduct of the stress we are all experiencing. There is a need for ongoing action to support all Australians in managing their emotions relating to this new way of life, and for those on the front lines we can not afford to be complacent. 

In the wake of this emerging abuse towards workers providing essential services, we must contemplate why, in our darkest moments, we express contempt for those offering the most help. What services are needed to address the root of the problem? How can we, as a nation, harness our collective compassion and turn our fears into useful action?

Virtual support is available. 

Contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 for free and confidential support. More information is available at beyondblue.org.au. Coronavirus specific mental health advice can be found here.

Contact the Coronavirus Mental Health Wellbeing Support Service 1800 512 348 or access the online forum here.

Contact National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Contact QLife for queer inclusive support: 1800 184 527 or at qlife.org.au for a webchat.  

Contact the National Alcohol and other Drugs Hotline: 1800 250 015

Contact Family Drug Support: 1300 368 186

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