On the 3rd May 2021, the Australian government, enforced a two week total ban of travellers from India under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth). The reason given was the escalating number of people with COVID-19 infections in India, and Australia’s inadequate capacity to manage quarantining the anticipated thousands of returning travellers who would most likely have the COVID-19 infection. For the first time the Australian Government announced that Australian citizens would incur a fine of AUD 66,000 or five years imprisonment if they breached the ban. The result was an outcry from some angry individuals and groups, particularly in response to the threat of hefty fines and imprisonment for Australian citizens, for whom the government had a responsibility of care. Accusations of racism against Australians of Indian heritage surfaced, likely fuelled by their past experiences. Blame was apportioned to the Australian government for the lack of resources in ensuring a robust quarantining system. Blame was also assigned to those desiring to return home for travelling to India in the first place or choosing to stay in India during a global pandemic. I do not intend to analyse or simplify a very complex situation nor critique the claims made, merely to highlight the observation of how easy it is to move into a stance of blaming others and how doing so can be damaging to a society as it escalates further into violence and fear.
The culture of blame is often evident in responses to crises—someone must be held accountable for the wrongs done and errors made. Who was to blame for the breach in hotel quarantine that resulted in the second wave in Victoria, Australia? During the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, a few high-ranking officials and the Victorian health minister resigned when blame was assigned. Whilst it is true that someone had to be accountable for errors made, there is a difference between accountability and blame. Being accountable is to take responsibility for an outcome and work towards a resolution or improvement in future endeavours. Blame, on the other hand, focuses on the individual person and their actions or lack thereof, with the intent of punishing or condemning the individual, often without necessarily considering the context and system or group within which the individual operates.
Khatri et al. (2009) describe a blame culture as
a set of norms and attitudes within an organization [or society] characterized by an unwillingness to take risks or accept responsibility for mistakes because of a fear of criticism or management admonishment. This culture cultivates distrust and fear, and people blame each other to avoid being reprimanded or put down, resulting in no new ideas or personal initiative because people do not want to risk being wrong. (p. 314)
“Blaming” can perpetuate or lead to further destructive behaviours and actions—violence, exclusion, negativity and abuse of power with continuing mistaken perspectives and false assumptions as in domestic violence, and loss of confidence and self-esteem, mental illness and moral decline in the ones being blamed. It is not life-giving for those who choose to blame and those who are blamed.
The Gospel narrative of the adulterous woman (John 8: 4-10) invites us to a different perspective and into a process that encourages growth. Jesus did not apportion blame to any individual, nor did he condemn the adulterous woman. Instead, he invited those without sin to throw the first stone. They left, for not one person present was “without sin.” This stance offered the accusers opportunities to self-reflect on their own wrong doings. He then invited the woman to “sin no more.” We do not know what Jesus’ reasoning was at the time when he was being challenged by the chief priests and Pharisees. It does seem however that the woman’s dignity was maintained. Blame was not apportioned. I wonder if Jesus considered that the issue was not just with the act of adultery but also related to the many destructive cultural practices of the time.
Paralleling the above with the hotel quarantine breach resulting in Victoria’s second wave of community infection, some critical questions could be posed. In appointing people to take charge of the hotel quarantine programme, were the right people with the necessary skills for running such a programme appointed? Were they supported in their roles? Were the necessary checks and balances in place to help troubleshoot problems or manage risks? This may include recognising that those in charge did not have the capacity and skills needed to fulfil the task and handle situations adequately. Did members of the general public continue to follow the advice to social distance and wear masks when social distancing was not possible? Did this complacency also contribute to the second wave? Did the thousands of Australians in India seeking to come home have valid reasons for being in India in the first place when the advice was not to travel? Who am I to judge? The investigation into the many contributing factors that led to the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Victoria resulted in recommendations to improve the quarantining process and provide a more robust system. This could be seen as akin to Jesus cautioning the adulterous woman to “sin no more.”
In moving out of a culture of blame, we are invited to focus on the process of acknowledging errors and working together to ensure constant improvement and growth. We are encouraged to take on the perspective of the whole where we acknowledge that everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else, and that judgement and apportioning blame and condemnation is not as helpful as recognising that we each have a part in causing, as well as solving the problem.
We need our prophets and leaders to challenge us on our choices and the cultures that bring about moral decline and its accompanying destruction, such as the culture of blame. Cultures promoting consumerism, anthropocentrism, self-centredness or narcissism, loss of a sense of the common good and a universal humanity, abuse of power, clericalism and social exclusion are some named by Pope Francis.
When faced with daily moral challenges and in times of crises, we are invited to discern and act in life-giving ways consistent with our core values and beliefs in the inherent dignity of the human person (and many would add, all creation) and as relational beings, the common good. Continuing to adopt a culture of blame I suggest would not be consistent with this. Pope Francis reminds us “Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths to dialogue and not by constructing new walls.”
 Biosecurty Act 2015 (Cth) (Austral.).
 COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, Final Report and Recommendations, Volume I Parl paper no. 191 (2018–2020)
 Khatri, N., et al. (2009). “From a blame culture to a just culture in health care.” Health Care Management Review 34(4): 312-322.
 Henning, K., et al. (2005). ““I didn’t do it, but if I did I had a good reason”: Minimization, denial, and attributions of blame among male and female domestic violence offenders.” Journal of Family Violence 20(3): 131-139
 Pope Francis (2015), Laudate Si. Retrieved from Laudato si’ (24 May 2015) | Francis (vatican.va), and Pope Francis (2020) Fratelli Tutti. Retrieved from papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.pdf (vatican.va)
 Pope Francis (2013), Address of Pope Francis to Participants in the International Meeting for Peace Sponsored By The Community Of “Sant’ Egidio.” (p. 2). Retrieved from papa-francesco_20130930_incontro-pace-s-egidio.pdf (vatican.va)