Interview: Moral Panic

Oil painting picture of my face. I have short black hair, wear a colourful mask and colourful top with drawings of women

The past of the month has proved especially busy. I’ve done a few media interviews and launched a new webseries with Associate Professor Alana Letin, called Race in Society. More on these projects in the coming days. Today, I look back on my interview with 3CR Diaspora Blues about my article, Pandemic, race and moral panic. Listen below, with a transcription for accessibility further down.

3RC Diaspora Blues Moral Panic with Dr Zuleyka Zevallos


Dr Zuleyka Zevallos is an applied sociologist. She’s also the founder of the blog, The Other Sociologist, which we definitely recommend you check out, especially if you’re interested in understanding how social theories apply in the real world. In the first half of the interview, Doctor Zuleyka explains what a ‘moral panic’ is and what causes this condition. She also discusses ‘benevolent paternalism,’ a concept that on paper might sound harmless, but actually has devastating consequences for marginalised communities. For those wondering why some communities may be reluctant to engage with police or government officials, stick around for sure because Doctor Zuleyka gets into all of that. And, no, we’re not talking about conspiracy theories, right, this is real stuff y’all.

I am a sociologist. That means that I study society, and in particular, how culture and institutions have an impact on the way we live our lives, and the institutions that have an impact on our life choices and our Iife outcomes. A lot of sociology is obviously research-based that’s done in universities. A lot of that academic work is published in journals that are locked under a paywall, because it’s about generating the knowledge for our discipline. An applied sociologist is somebody who moves away from universities. We work in other places. For example, we help to shape social policies. We evaluate government programmes. We have a look at whether things are working for particular client groups. We work with communities to make sure that social programmes are meeting their needs.

My blog is set up to try and bring those two worlds together. I publish everything free and for the public. You don’t have to be a sociologist to follow me. What I try and do is to summarise some of those ideas that come out of academia and to capture some of my experiences working across different settings, to look at topical issues, particularly around social justice social inclusion and racial justice. I write articles to try and help people, you know, provide guidelines for people who are looking to decrease racial discrimination in the workplace, for example, or as is the case here, I write articles on issues like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One of my latest articles is about how we can use the sociology of race to contextualise the way in which the pandemic has been managed to date.

Can you tell us a little bit about the name of your blog and why you decided on that?

Sure. My blog is called ‘The Other Sociologist.’ The concept of otherness is the way in which many societies, especially societies that have been colonised, tend to set things up in binaries. The dominant group; everything about them is natural and normal and not questioned. Then there’s ‘the others,’ everybody who is not the same as the dominant group. Otherness is a concept that describes how societies organise difference and how categories of difference reproduce inequality. For example, woman is ‘the other’ of man. It’s about ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ It’s about migrants being seen as ‘the other’ of Anglo Australians, for example. My blog is about unpacking how social differences are organised and how that feeds into quality at different points in time for different groups.

In your article, you talk a lot around moral panic. Can you speak about that? What conditions create moral panic?

A moral panic is a situation where a particular group, or a particular event, might be seen as a threat to the existing social values, and particularly the interests of elite members or dominant groups. It happens when there’s a great period of stress or social changes which is like the pandemic at the moment. It gives rise to conditions where some groups become more demonised and stigmatised as being the cause of whatever it is that is stressing people out. It’s happened across history in lots of different ways.

Some of the features of a moral panic is that there will always be a ‘folk devil;’ there’ll be a group that becomes blamed for all of society’s ills. In many cases, this is often racial minorities, and certainly with the pandemic it’s been minority groups. Some features of this is, basically, when you look at the 12 restricted postcodes in Victoria, they are highly multicultural areas. While they did have concerning patterns of infection, the data that were being released by the Health Department of Victoria was actually showing that they made up around 50% of infections. So you could maybe cut any 12 different suburbs and probably still get some concerning patterns, but the focus of the primary lockdown was on those multicultural suburbs and widespread testing that included door knocking, with police being involved, and then eventually military. There was a highly over-policed response that wasn’t done in the first wave [early in the pandemic], when the majority of the infections were coming from middle class and affluent people who were returning from overseas travel.

The moral panic begins with people in authority basically, feeding into the general population’s, especially White people’s, fear that anybody who’s different might be to blame for the spread of the pandemic. When, in fact, we are now very clear that the problem is not race-based at all, and it is based around class and inequality. The majority of infections in the second wave is among working class and precariously employed occupations: it’s aged workers; it’s people working in the healthcare system; it’s people working in meat factories. And the overwhelming majority of those people happen to be migrants and happen to be poorer people who are struggling to make ends meet, who don’t have adequate sick leave and for whom social distancing is probably not as easy as it is for middle class people who can easily work from home.

Moral panics very quickly latch onto people who are different minorities and blame them, when, in fact, there has never been a moral panic justified on a racial minority group. It’s usually to do with inequalities that are already exist in society that suddenly make this pandemic, and another public health responses, be focused on the wrong areas.

With that, structural inequality, on your article you mentioned how benevolent paternalism that plays a part in that, and how you, know you, we’re seeing these people who are facing structural inequalities are being treated. Could you tell us a little bit about what benevolent paternalism is and how we can recognise that?

Sure. Benevolent paternalism is the ways in which government sometimes make the presumption that government is better placed to make decisions on behalf of citizens. Very rarely is policy made that way, that’s equally applied to everybody. So this isn’t just about the introduction of laws. This is about specific situations when governments will make particular rules or laws that take away the autonomy, particularly from minority groups, to make their own informed choices, and often lead to a denial of civil rights. An example of a good public health measure is social distancing. Social distancing, we know that it works, and when it’s applied to everybody equally—we’re all being told the four things that we must do in order to stop the spread of infection—if that’s applied to everyone equally, that’s not an example of benevolent paternalism. That’s just good evidence-based public health response. Benevolent paternalism is when a particular group is being treated differently than everybody else on the presumption that they can’t do the right thing. That can’t be trusted do the right thing on their own.

You can actually hear it in a lot of the political speeches that are being given, especially in those daily press releases, where you have decision makers saying things like, when they justified the lock down of the nine towers [social housing in Flemington and North Melbourne], it was justified along these terms.  

The presumption is that these individuals in the nine towers, who racial minorities, they have to be locked down by police or otherwise they can’t be trusted like the rest of Melbourne to follow the rules. When, in fact, we know that there were other dynamics at play, such as the fact that social housing has a long history of being poorly serviced. The government already knew that those facilities were inadequate and that it posed a public health risk. Instead of addressing those issues and planning together with the community—communicating and working collaboratively with the residents of the nine towers, and the local grassroots community groups—back in March when the overseas situation was escalating, and it looked like we needed to go into lockdown. Rather than addressing that months ago, the government decided to make a sudden decision to put those residents into lockdown. They said it was for their own good, but, in fact, it led to further inequalities and further denial of informed consent around testing. It meant that those residents were not getting culturally adequate resources and food. That they were getting poor communication. This could have been handled very differently. It would have been handled very differently if those high rise towers contained affluent White Anglo Saxon Australians.

With that, why would racialised communities be reluctant? The people that we see in the nine towers were mostly people of African background, Asian background, migrants. As you were mentioning, the police and the government responded way late, when they could have put measures in place earlier to kind of avoid these situations. That would clearly play into how people are interacting with the police and the government and that distrust. Can you speak more about how all of that leads to reluctance to engage with the measures that were being put in place and how you know how they were being treated?

Absolutely. My past research has looked at this exact issue. Governments are constantly wringing their hands as to why racial minorities and disadvantaged groups don’t collaborate and don’t come forward more willingly. The fact is that these communities have complex needs. Some of the reasons why residents might be not as forthcoming, and would have actually very good reasons not to trust their interactions, it could be partly because some of those migrants have been forced to migrate or perhaps they were asylum seekers and refugees. They may have experienced very negative [interactions] and a lot of persecution. A lot of negative experiences in their original home country, or oftentimes, people are relocated to many countries in between before they finally resettle in Australia. They may have spent time in refugee camps. They are constantly exposed to very poor behaviours by state authorities. By the time they settle in Australia, of course it makes sense that they may not trust the government here either. The government knows that. There’s a lot of research that they’ve produced that already shows that. That means that governments already understand that a better way to approach communities is to build trust, and that trust needs to come over time.

I would think that there’s very little trust in a situation where the government already understands that the social housing dwellings are overcrowded and that the facilities are not up to code, and residents have already raised issues, and nothing is being done about it. Well that already tells residents that perhaps the government’s not on their side. Then there are other issues, in terms of a lot of services or not culturally, linguistically or religiously adequate. A lot of the burden falls on community groups that are not-for-profit. Often, it’s just volunteer-run. That’s what happened [in the nine towers lockdown]. The state government made a decision to go into the nine towers without adequate planning. They provided incorrect food. They didn’t provide timely medications for people who have medical conditions. Instead of working together and adequately funding those community groups, it actually came down to them [community volunteers] providing their own services.

This is something that’s also come out in previous studies I’ve done in other parts of Australia. Minority groups end up having to fend for themselves. They’re inadequately funded. The services that are mainstream aren’t fit for purpose. They don’t suit the needs of migrant and refugee communities. Residents are often put in an adversarial role in social housing, often having to prove their eligibility to stay within the social housing environment. It leads leaves them in a more vulnerable position. If your landlord is effectively the state, and the state hasn’t been looking after your house, why would you trust them when they come knocking on the door with the police/

In those areas of Flemington and North Melbourne, they have been subjected to over-policing. There’s already a lot of grassroot community-led initiatives to try and deal with the fact that police target racial minorities and religious minorities in those areas. Pulling them over, harassing them, using violence, when, in fact, it is not the job of police to regularly deal with citizens using violence. All of these things just create a pattern where local communities have no basis of good faith to trust that the government will do the right thing by them. Unfortunately, the pandemic has just amplified those patterns. They used a police-led response. Unfortunately, it has probably done quite a lot of harm, showing people in social housing that the government doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

There is an inquiry about the broader hotel quarantine [mismanagement by Government] and local communities have produced their own reports showing the poor behaviour of police and government officials. It shows a pattern that perhaps we do need a separate inquiry on the way in which [the nine towers response] was mismanaged for people in social housing. The government has a responsibility to produce culturally relevant and culturally safe response, alongside of a [broader] public health plan to manage the pandemic.

This is one of the biggest health problems we’ve had in Australia in recent years. It is something that’s evolving; however, the best practise of public health is well-documented and well-known to state authorities. They just haven’t followed that when it comes to racial minorities.

This has been such an amazing interview. We learned so much during this conversation. We hope you did too. If you are interested in sociology minus the academic jargon, check out Dr Zuleyka Zevallos’ blog, The Other Sociologist, at Her Twitter handle is @OtherSociology, one word. You’re listening 3CR community radio on digital and online.