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In an unprecedented age where the world struggles in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic, a minority of individuals are choosing to weaponise their own bodies – by claiming to have the virus and infecting others by spitting or coughing on them.
A highly contagious virus, Covid-19 has changed the way we live, limiting our contact with others and killing nearly 300,000 people around the globe.
While spitting itself has long been known as a hostile act, capable of spreading disease, the threat of spreading this particular virus is becoming increasingly common, with results that could well be fatal.
This has been illustrated most starkly by the case of railway ticket officer worker Belly Mujinga, who was on duty on the concourse at London’s Victoria Train Station on March 21 when a member of the public approached her and a colleague and assaulted them by coughing and spitting in their faces.
The male informed the women he had coronavirus before fleeing the scene. A week after the assault, both women fell ill and were found to have contracted coronavirus. Mujinga, who had underlying health issues, was admitted to hospital in Barnet on April 2 and died three days later. Her colleague is still recovering.
The attack on Mujinga, who leaves behind an 11-year-old daughter and husband is now being investigated by police – though it was only reported a full seven weeks later. Questions remain as to whether evidence that could have helped catch the perpetrator has been lost, as well as how to protect public-facing workers.
Tragically, Mujinga, who had been signed off work in the past with respiratory problems, was sent back out onto the concourse after the attack on her, despite pleading to be allowed to finish her shift inside the ticket office where a pane of glass would have separated her from the public.
Though it cannot be proved that Mujinga contracted the virus through the attack, more and more incidents like it are being reported. Last month, three men were jailed for coughing, spitting or threatening to infect people – including police officers – with coronavirus.
They included Bevan Burke, 22, who was arrested after spitting at a shopkeeper who had banned him from a Birmingham store for shoplifting, and shouting: “I have corona… you’re going to die.”
As Burke was later being transported to police custody, he began coughing and blowing towards officers and again said: “I’ve got confirmed coronavirus and now you’ve got it. I hope you and your family die.”
Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, terms the act of spitting at another human being a biological and psychological assault.
He said: “One of the problems of spitting is that as an offence it’s unpredictable, you can’t defend against it, and it violates social norms. We were taught as children: don’t spit. We’re taught that spitting is bad, that is spreads diseases. It violates everything we are taught about decent human behaviour in public and that’s why it shocks people.”
While Jackson concedes that spitting at members of the uniformed forces is not a new trend, he says the options to protect such workers as Mujinga are severely limited in the current climate.
Without PPE, he said, there is little else that can be done. “For bus drivers you can have screens and we do that anyway, shop workers can have screens,” he said. “But where you’ve got mobile workers on their feet such as concourses or in hospitality where they’re not behind a counter and they’re not protected, that’s the real weak point, that’s the interface.”
Sadly, attacks on staff like Mujinga are commonplace. Linda Freitas, who has worked at Victoria station for 13 years, told the Press Association: “I don’t think people realise how much abuse we get.”
She said: “We have occasions where people become aggressive, it’s very bad, it’s scary.”
Of Mujinga’s death, she said: “I was so shocked. You never think it’s going to happen to someone that you work with.”
Freitas added she was “anxious and a bit scared” about the prospect of more commuters travelling back to work after the relaxation of lockdown on Wednesday.
Another railway worker at the station, who gave her name as Gabby, said that Wednesday was the first day staff had been given masks to wear.
She said: “There’s not much being done to check all the staff. Today is the first day we have had masks.”
And a security worker who asked to remain anonymous said: “I think they’re trying to cover themselves. This should have been done right at the beginning.”
Professor Jackson believes the act of spitting at uniformed workers is borne out of their representation of authority in moments of conflict, rendering the victim in the spitter’s mind as “fair game”.
He said: “They represent authority and they unfortunately are seen by individuals as being the manifestation of elements of that authority that members of the public don’t like or disagree with.
“So for that moment, where there is an aggressive conflict between the person and uniform, it’s fair game – you can take your frustration out on that person. Either traditionally, by calling them a pig or verbally abusing them or saying something about their parentage or heritage. But now spitting is for some seen as a powerful embodiment and weaponisation of their own physical presence.
“It’s both biological and psychological because of the uncertainty. I couldn’t think of a more hateful act. Being spat at is just synonymous with hatred and disgust.
“Another reason why I think some elements of society see spitting as a great weapon is because it’s only one spit but the potential for cross infection and cross contamination amongst several people could be quite huge. It’s a very effective weapon in some cases. It’s also a psychological weapon – it’s a form of terror. It’s the fear of not knowing if this person is telling the truth, or if they are just bluffing.
“Years ago you used to have to spend months down the gym or abuse anabolic androgens [steroids]. Now you can have the abilities of a superhero without having to put hours in at the gym and getting muscular and built. Your body can be a very effective – and potentially, in some cases – lethal weapon. And for some people who don’t value uniformed services, maybe feel marginalised and see themselves as part of an underclass, they see this as evening the game a little bit.
“I don’t know if there could have been a racial element in there as well in Belly’s case, that’s a possibility, but the spitter may just have been spitting at the uniform, not at the person, not at the individual. They’re spitting at this representation of whatever train company it was that everybody is fed up with or feels doesn’t give good service.”
Spitting at uniformed workers has long been a problem, with the police in particular regularly requesting protective equipment – namely spit hoods – to deal with the hazard. The hoods are used in custody suites but they are not permitted to be carried on the beat, with human rights groups including Amnesty International calling them a “cruel and dangerous” form of restraint.
In a 2018 Metropolitan Police Federation survey, one officer said he was forced to take a two-week course of preventative drugs after he was spat at in a custody suite, and as a result of the side effects was not allowed to hold his newborn daughter.
In Mujinga’s case, the use of a spit hood would not have been possible and it is debatable whether an eye wash station would have made any difference. While face masks are now being issued at the station, Professor Jackson believes the government needs to do more to educate the public about the dangers of spitting and make it as anti-social as offences such as drink driving.
He said: “We shun drink drivers now, we look down on them but, years ago, we didn’t. There has been a very successful campaign in Scotland and England for making people look down on drink drivers. You could do the same with spitting.”
He said: “When you finish your work at 5pm, your health, both psychological and physical, should be no worse than it was at 9am. And if it is, there is something legally, morally and ethically wrong with that job.
“We shouldn’t let the employers off the hook here. Although this is an unpredictable violent act, they still do have a duty of care to their workers that things like this when they do happen are dealt with quickly.
“Workers have got to feel they will be supported by management when these unpredictable offences do happen.”