Coronavirus has ushered in the terrifying era of coughing assaults

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Belly Mujinga didn’t deserve to be abused, and certainly didn’t deserve to die. The ticket officer, who worked at London’s Victoria station, was spat on and coughed at by a man claiming to have coronavirus on 22 March. Within days, Mujinga fell ill. She was admitted to hospital, where she died with coronavirus at the age of 47 on April 5. Her family believe the two facts were linked, and British Transport Police are investigating her death, looking to find the man who coughed and spat at her – and a colleague, who also caught the virus but survived.

The incident throws light on an uncomfortable truth: droplets of our spit and saliva have been weaponised by a highly-contagious, often deadly disease. Most times they’re expelled from us by accident, but sometimes it’s a malicious act designed to intimidate, threaten or assault others.
“The whole point of coughing and sneezing is to expel fluids from our noses and lungs,” says Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia. Generally, something in the lungs or nose irritates them, and the body wants to get it out. But some people choose to deliberately spit or cough on people as an insult. Doing so can spread an infection or virus. “It’s a disgusting thing anyway, even without Covid-19, but with it, it could potentially be lethal,” says Hunter.

A Daily Telegraph investigation found that in the first month of the coronavirus outbreak, police forces in England and Wales dealt every week with around 200 incidents of people spitting and coughing at officers – nearly 30 reports a day. Most of those incidents involved people claiming to have coronavirus before spitting. In Ireland, police were coughed on or spat at 64 times between early April and early May. They put spit hoods, which shield officers from any saliva, on those they arrested 47 times. And the individual incidents are horrifying in their nature.

Last weekend, seven people aged between 23 and 48 were arrested after allegedly coughing and spitting at police officers sent to a house in Bolton where 40 people had attended a birthday party. The officers were there to break up the party, but some of the attendees put up a fight. The seven were arrested for being drunk and disorderly, though others who have spat, coughed or sneezed at others have been arrested for common assault or battery.

“In terms of assault, battery is defined as the intentional or reckless infliction of unlawful force,” explains Stuart Macdonald, professor in criminal law at Swansea University. Any contact is enough for the crime of battery, and prior law has established that contact can be through a liquid: throw your pint over someone and it can be seen as battery. “Spitting has always been battery, too”, adds Macdonald. The new factor is coughing. “That seems to be setting new ground, to some extent, but it’s consistent with how the offence has been interpreted in the past.”

The law is rapidly catching up with the reality of coronavirus. In the US, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, has been considering a bill that would potentially punish anyone who spat, coughed or sneezed on a key worker by throwing them in jail for 90 days and fining them up to $500.

In the UK, home secretary Priti Patel has said she will be investigating beefing up pre-existing legislation that punishes people for common assault or battery on emergency workers. In 2018, the maximum sentence for that crime doubled from six months to 12 months, but Patel has said she wants that to be doubled again because of the potentially lethal consequences. Attacks against emergency service workers are counted as aggravated assault, too – making the offence more serious.

Spitting and coughing maliciously is treated differently in England and Wales and Scotland. “In Scotland, spitting at someone is in itself a criminal offence – an assault – regardless of whether the virus is involved,” explains Fiona Leverick, professor of criminal law and justice at the University of Glasgow. Scottish police would also have the ability to charge anyone who spat at key workers (or anyone else) with reckless endangerment, says Leverick, which is a “specifically Scottish charge”. The crime is of deliberately doing something that exposes an individual to significant risk of health or life, and can be punishable by up to life imprisonment, depending on which level of court it is tried.

It’s previously been used to prosecute people who expose others to the risk of disease, such as through HIV. But wherever you are in the world, moving from reckless endangerment to a more serious charge, such as culpable homicide – as the British press are campaigning for against whoever spat at Belly Mujinga – is much trickier legally.

“You’d still have to prove that the assault – the spitting – was a cause of the death,” says Leverick. A jury would have to be convinced there was a direct line between the action and the consequences. “The major challenge would be proving that chain of causation,” says Macdonald.

There are precedents for that, though. In April 2018, Daryll Rowe, who used dating app Grindr to deliberately infect five men with HIV through unprotected sex, and tried to infect at least five others unsuccessfully, was imprisoned for a minimum of 12 years. The crime Rowe had committed was grievous bodily harm (GBH). The crime is essentially the living equivalent of murder: intending to cause a person “really serious bodily harm”, as defined by a 1961 judgement. If the crime was a simple assault, a person’s knowledge of being infected with coronavirus would not make a difference to the judgement. However, says Macdonald, a grievous bodily harm conviction would require intent: coughing on someone knowing you had the virus.

Meting out similarly severe punishments as the one given to Rowe is one way to potentially head off the rise of coronavirus-spitting that is already increasing. Some are being brought to bear already. Iain Lindsay, 48, from Inverness, was jailed earlier this week for endangering police lives by coughing in their faces, when he was being taken to a police station after being arrested on a different matter. Lindsay, who did not have coronavirus, is serving a four-month sentence. But protecting frontline workers proactively, rather than trying to deter people with severe punishments, is also important. Presently, aggravated assault only covers emergency workers, not key workers – though anyone attacking others by coughing or spitting can still be arrested and punished for battery.

Many supermarkets have installed plastic shields for checkout staff aimed at preventing transmission of the virus through the air – which will also stop spitting. That’s needed: a survey by the Usdaw union shows that since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the average shop worker has faced assault, threats or abuse once a week. Nearly 200 have been physically assaulted. Some have been spat at for trying to stop shoplifters, or enforcing limits on the number of certain items shoppers are allowed to purchase to prevent hoarding.

For members of the public, there’s little they can do to prevent being attacked, other than keeping social distance of at least two metres, while face-masks could only slightly limit the transmission of the virus.

“Sadly, being spat at by vile individuals is nothing new for police officers,” says John Apter, chief of the Police Federation of England and Wales. “But to weaponise it and threaten to spread a deadly virus is a new low and must be met head on by the criminal justice system. There must be a consequence, and that consequence should be prison.”

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