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I spent the first 24 years of my life in Parafield Gardens, an workaday suburb tucked in Adelaide’s north, bordered by wetlands, a little airport, and roughly 3,000 used car yards. You can imagine my shock when I heard the city’s recent coronavirus outbreak described as the ‘Parafield Cluster’, and the precautionary closure of a supermarket I grew up calling ‘the shops’.

Then came the dread, which rose as new hotspots formed a ring around my family home. Finally, there was confirmation that an immediate family member had worked in the vicinity of a positive case, sending me down the kind of awful mental spiral familiar to too many Australians (my family member has since returned two negative test results, thankfully).

This is to say I have skin in the game. The health of those in Adelaide’s northern suburbs is of personal significance. So too is the city’s continual operation: I spent the better part of 2020 hibernating through Melbourne’s lockdown, and it wasn’t what I’d call an enjoyable experience. I don’t want to see Adelaide, and my family, locked in crisis mode. Better yet, I’d like the virus to fuck off entirely.

But when I look at the ongoing treatment of the man at the centre of this crisis – whose lie shaped South Australia’s recent decision to enter a six-day lockdown – I can’t help but think something’s gone terribly wrong.

The official line from South Australian Premier Steven Marshall is that a 36-year-old foreign national, who worked at Adelaide’s Stamford medi-hotel, misled contact tracers by telling them he contracted COVID-19 after ordering takeaway from a Woodville pizza bar. That sparked fears of widespread community infection, leading SA Health to launch a six-day “circuit breaker” lockdown. Those measures were lifted on Friday, when it was discovered the man actually worked at the pizza joint. Oops.

Initially, it seemed there would be few, if any, legal repercussions for that mistruth. Marshall said there was “no mechanism” to punish the man, whose “disgraceful conduct” was “utterly unacceptable”. But that stance appeared to erode on Saturday, when Marshall said the State Government would “throw the book” at the man, and established a 20-man detective taskforce to determine how he could be held accountable. ABC also reports the man’s phone has been confiscated.

But will the man’s retroactive punishment really deter anyone from lying to contact tracers moving forward?

The precise circumstances of his lie are yet to be revealed – you can expect the taskforce to cough up those details in due time – but we do know the man is not a permanent resident. There’s a constellation of workers who exist at the margins of Australian employment and immigration law, for whom divulging workplace details could result in drastic consequences. State authorities have asserted that nobody will be punished for the information they share in contract tracing sessions, but you can see why some might make the awful decision to withhold contact details. Epidemiologists have also debated the merits of fines for those who mislead contact tracers.

Even before the taskforce was announced, it was naive to assume the man wouldn’t face punishment. State authorities have not provided his name, but they didn’t really need to. Police officers were stationed outside the Woodville pizza joint after the lockdown was lifted over fears of community retribution, to say nothing of the restaurant’s totally stuffed reputation. If and when the man’s identity is revealed, it seems a dead certainty his face will be splashed on front pages, like the teenaged COVID-19 rule-breakers who adorned The Courier-Mail earlier this year. We know Australia has a few under-the-table methods to make people pay.

It goes without saying that lying to contact tracers is a massive liability, one that could potentially put hundreds of thousands of people at risk. I also cannot speak for Adelaide, let alone all of Parafield, a hard-working postcode that’s endured unimaginable stress in recent days. But I am not the only one whose thoughts veer towards some kind of mercy.

Fronting the media today, SA’s Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said, “there are always things that could have been happening in somebody’s life” to impact their conversations with contact tracers, adding that being “mad” about the lie is “not the sort of emotions that help you in a pandemic”. Professor Spurrier also confirmed the man is receiving mental health support.

South Australia is not home free yet, with 38 active coronavirus cases still on the books. It will be a while before the state can rest easy, and recent revelations will surely colour any future lockdown debate. I hope that contact tracers continue to gather and respond to accurate information. I hope to safely visit my family in Parafield Gardens over Christmas. And I hope to return to a state which didn’t destroy a man’s life over one extremely regrettable decision.

Image: Kelly Barnes / Getty Images