Would you call them out?

Tricky conversations with KHIN MYINT

LAST weekend, I was with some friends in a backyard, and a woman I didn’t know very well said she was unvaccinated. 

She watches Joe Rogan, believes that the vaccine isn’t safe, and wants to avoid it.

That group of friends is tolerant. No one gave her a hard time despite everyone else being pro-vaccine.

When we decided to head to a pub she said, “Would anyone feel uncomfortable if I used my fake vaccination certificate to come?”

It was an interesting moment. There was a pause and I looked at the others. Among the seven of us, no one spoke. The woman asked again. This time she said, “If anyone feels uncomfortable, I won’t come; it’s okay.”

Still, no one spoke. We then did our best to pretend she’d not even asked the question.

We went to the little underground bar, and I watched as she showed her fake certificate. The staff let her in without hesitation.

I thought about it for the remainder of that week. Not only had I felt uncomfortable, but part of me was angry.

It’s a week later, and we have our first Covid death in Perth.

My history with things like this.

I tried to understand our collective silence afterwards.

Maybe it was because woman was friendly and open. She was attractive and young. She’d talked about her relationships and family. She was a European migrant, and I’d enjoyed chatting with her about her perspective on Australian culture earlier that night.

In terms of my personal history, I have other feelings. I’m 44 now, but as a child, I stayed silent in the face of unethical acts.

When I was seventeen I watched an Indian boy physically abused at a party. A hundred or so white kids watched on, some jeering and laughing. As a person of colour with my own traumas, I was scared to say anything at the time, but I could have reported it afterwards. I didn’t and the guilt affected me for years.

Fast forward to several weeks ago, before the incident with that fake vaccination certificate. During the COVID outbreak linked to the backpacker community, I personally knew some of the people involved. They are ideologically against COVID public health measures. I knew about some of their behaviour that might be contributing to the outbreak. I felt obligated to say something but didn’t want to involve the authorities.

I brought it up with some mutual friends. I reasoned that social pressure from friendly voices may be the best remedy. 

I imagined that expressing my own moral distress about it would inspire my friends to encourage those involved to do the right thing. At the very least I hoped for empathy and a discussion about what to do next.

Unfortunately, it blew back at me. Someone asked why I had a ‘personal vendetta’ against those involved? Was it my ego? Why didn’t I just leave it alone? Let the authorities figure it out for themselves. I was betraying our tribe by bringing it up at all. 

It turns out police suspected there was an issue, but too late. There was an investigation (not triggered by me).


Two weeks later, the fake vaccine certificate incident occurred. It was with a different group of friends, but instead of potentially facing a similar backlash, I chose to stay silent this time.

I don’t feel proud about any of this. But these scenarios show some of the social forces at play beyond my own moral ineptitudes.

Making sense of it moving forward Two things are going on. One is the bystander effect, a well-documented tendency for people to do nothing when they collectively witness wrongdoing. The other is about social contracts in groups.

A social contract exists amongst friends concerning tolerance and loyalty. We tacitly agree not to judge each other harshly or dob each other in. We give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.

woman. She was the friend of someone I care about. Nor did I feel it was my duty to change her mind about vaccines. However, endangering lives by using a fake certificate to enter a crowded venue is a moral line in the sand. And I feel guilty for having stayed silent at that point.

I am sharing this experience with our community to pose a question—What will each of us do in a similar situation?

Here are three things I could have tried: 1) I could have said how uncomfortable I felt. 2) I could have threatened to report her if she didn’t delete the fake certificate. 3) I could have reported her to the venue or the police afterwards.

Each option held a social risk for me, and the last risked our community by being too late. So, I selfishly chose to do nothing.

I told this story to two mates today who both suggested they’d have acted differently.

Coincidentally, a friend who is unvaxxed then came into the cafe and sat down next to us, flouting current public health measures.

Despite my two mates having just asserted they would speak up, only one (a combative personality) did so. Even then he was vague and quickly left the scene. The other mate and I looked away and acted as if nothing had occurred. It was tellingly uncomfortable.

Faced with reality, doing the right thing is much harder than we might speculate. The psychology demanding group loyalty is intense. I have another friend whose boss is using a fake vaccine certificate. That situation is even more fraught because she could lose her job if she reports him.

With all this in mind, it would help to talk about these scenarios before one happens to you. Their reality is often more difficult to deal with than we expect.

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