Future Tense

How Should We Feel When Bad People Get COVID-19?

Peter Dutton in Parliament.
Peter Dutton in Canberra, Australia, on Sept. 11. Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

At 5:57 p.m. Friday Australian Eastern Standard Time, the first of many group messages came screeching in: The Australian government’s most polarizing minister, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, had tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the country’s 156th confirmed case.

Dutton announced the news on Twitter himself, explaining that he had woken with a temperature, had gotten tested, had been found to be carrying the virus, and was subsequently admitted to the hospital. (He feels fine.) “Dutton” quickly became the No. 1 trending topic in Australia, not to mention a front-page story on the New York Times and Washington Post websites, thanks to the photo that quickly emerged of the “Australian official” standing smiling next to Ivanka Trump and Attorney General William Barr on a trip to the U.S. just six days prior.

The virus, it seems, is now literally and metaphorically circling the White House, with Dutton just the latest in a string of infected world leaders who have met with members of the Trump administration.

Dutton’s diagnosis was met with glee by many here in Australia. It’s not a stretch to say he is the most openly hated member of the conservative Liberal Party—the sort of politician who prompts articles such as “A Brief Timeline of Every Fucked Up Thing Peter Dutton Has Done.” Close readers of Australian politics may recall his role in the 2018 leadership spill that ousted the more moderate leader Malcolm Turnbull over his willingness to act on climate change, with Dutton ultimately being foiled by a majority of his own right-wing party. The former cop is known for his barely concealed dog-whistle racism, whether that’s suggesting people are afraid to go out to dinner in my state due to “African gangs” or joking about island nations being destroyed by rising sea levels. But it’s his hard-line immigration policies that no doubt bring him the most vitriol. His Home Affairs “mega portfolio” is responsible for overseeing Australia’s draconian refugee detention regime, one which he has worked to make more secretive in his time at the helm, while actively fighting against introducing humane medical transfer laws or allowing them to be used. In his years in the role, Dutton has become known for suggesting suffering detained refugees are lighting themselves on fire or getting raped purely as tactics to reach the mainland.

Imagine, if you will, that Stephen Miller had just been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and you can perhaps begin to understand the online reaction.

Australian Twitter exploded, going from frustration with the government’s newly announced large-gathering ban (which won’t kick in until Monday for highly suspicious reasons) and sadness at the cancellation of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to uncontained mirth.

There were gags about thoughts and prayers, Dutton the zombie, and Dutton the potato (yes), and suggestions that the comedy festival had been called off because nothing could top this. There were a number of references to his despicable work, including to the “I stopped these” boat trophy the prime minister keeps on his desk. “Christmas Island” began trending (along with “there is a God”), a reference to the draconian detention center where Dutton’s government has kept both refugees and, more recently, Australians in quarantine returning from overseas.

The Betoota Advocate, the popular satirical outlet that recently fooled Maggie Haberman with a picture of Tom Hanks and Wilson, summed it all up with its headline: “Report: omg lol.”

There were many iterations of “best day ever” and “finally something good has come of this,” along with comparisons to the fact that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary had tested positive for the coronavirus. There were calls for Dutton to suffer, to die, for the rest of the government to get it too.

I have to admit, my gut reaction was one of involuntary satisfaction—of which I immediately felt sickened and ashamed. Peter Dutton is an undeniably terrible person, and his diagnosis does seem like some kind of cosmic justice. I completely understand the impulse to take pleasure in it. But it’s one we need to control.

An extra case of the coronavirus in Australia, or anywhere, is not something to be celebrated, especially considering the terrifying way the virus spreads. The new coronavirus is believed to be more contagious than the flu: One person infects 2.2 people on average, so one extra case means on average 2.2 extra cases, and then 4.84, and so on exponentially. In the case of Dutton, a man who has spent the past few days traversing the world and the country, meeting with other people who are also traversing the world and the country, we ought to be concerned, not delighted.

Amid the laughter, there has been little room for concern over those close to Dutton, or the hundreds of public servants or workers who might have come into contact with him during his incubation period. (Despite many claims to the contrary, the virus can be spread by people yet to show symptoms.) There was not much thought for his family, or his staff, or even just those who sat next to him on flights. A member of Parliament having it would also seem to indicate that the country’s population is far more heavily affected than the 156 reported cases. If Dutton has it, how many people in the community must? (Of course, Dutton may have been at higher risk of catching it and passing it on than most, given his travel.) While we here in Australia are lucky to have access to free and widely available testing, Dutton’s access to a quick turnaround test that allowed him to get same day results was still highly privileged—many more of us (me included) are spending days in self-isolation, awaiting our results, so numbers among the majority will take even longer to register. Dutton’s news should be sobering, not side-splitting.

This is not to beg sympathy for Dutton, but just to say that hate begets hate—wishing him harm feels spiteful and inhumane, even if he has caused harm to so many. There are great examples on Twitter of how to express dislike for Dutton without celebrating his ill-health. Founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Kon Karapanagiotidis, a true Peter Dutton enemy, tweeted, “Yes what he is doing to refugees is monstrous, but if we are about being better, living by values, compassion & decency this applies to everyone, not just those that we like.”

And if Dutton having the coronavirus is karmic payback, what does that mean for all those others who contract it and die?

I am aware that people are just blowing off steam here, and perhaps I’m especially sensitive right now. As someone caring for a terminally ill, 75-year-old, diabetic father on chemo—a true Petri dish of immunocompromisation—I now live in genuine terror of the spread of this virus, convinced that I’m going to get it if I leave my house or see my friends. It’s hard to find the joy in yet another high-profile case.

Humor has become an acceptable way to deal with the horror that seems to be buffeting the world on a daily basis, and Australians, as natural jokers, are better at it than most. This situation is rich in irony, and many are reaping that irony with genuinely clever plays on words. But there’s something particularly sadistic in the way the celebration is unfolding here. Putting aside the schadenfreude, is there actually anything inherently funny about Peter Dutton having the coronavirus? People are defending their right to laugh at this, but are jokes derived from someone contracting a deadly illness really worth laughing at? We seem to have conflated anger with humor, hate with joy, schadenfreude with happiness.

I’m far from the only one feeling conflicted on the left, though in the avalanche of jokes and memes, it can sometimes feel like it. There are a handful of iterations of “does celebrating this make me a bad person?” and “nah this is fine” going on in my feeds, with many tweets preemptively slamming takes like this or anyone showing sympathy for Dutton. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m just suggesting this isn’t funny to those of us truly terrified by this virus—or to the refugees it seems. When BuzzFeed Australia immigration reporter Hannah Ryan asked several people in detention for their reaction to Dutton getting the coronavirus, all said they would pray for his recovery, saying they understood the definition of suffering, even as they acknowledged the pain he had wrought upon them.

Even as I write this, I am trying to imagine how I might feel, what kind of hypocritical positions I might contort myself into, if the only potential exception to this rule I can think of contracted the virus: Donald Trump (something that seems more likely by the day). As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in the Atlantic, the president has actively made this crisis worse; more people will get sick and suffer directly because of his words and actions. It puts Dutton’s plight in perspective, really. While he has no doubt caused much suffering, it’s harder to say his actions directly contributed to the spread of the virus (other than his head-scratching decision to go on a trip to the U.S.). But I’m fairly sure it still wouldn’t be “funny”—not in the true sense of the word—if Trump, who until recently was refusing to get tested despite being in direct contact with a confirmed case, contracted a disease whose spread he did little to monitor because he thought higher numbers would hurt his reelection prospects, as he leads a country that is potentially the least prepared in the world.

It’s terrifying, and strangely exhilarating, to consider exactly what Dutton’s diagnosis means, who else he may have given the virus to, how much more complicated this makes things. Journalists are digging through where the very senior Dutton has been in the past week while infectious, having attended a Cabinet meeting alongside the prime minister, who then met with all the state premiers and the chief medical officer, who all (theoretically) will now need to self-isolate. It’s crazy. As writer Van Badham suggests—“no joke”!—the whole executive branch really should go to Christmas Island. Having members of the government trying to lead our response being infected with coronavirus is no laughing matter, no matter how you feel about that government.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.