covid 19 testing
(Image: AAP/Daniel Pockett)

Just when things seemed to be returning to normal, an alarming spike in coronavirus cases has hit Victoria.

With community transmission spreading through security guards, GP clinics and large family gatherings, the state is scrambling to get things back under control. 

Why did Victoria, a state which locked down harder and more cautiously than any other, get hit by a new spike? The answer could be down to changing behaviour as restrictions loosened, or sheer bad luck. 

But the roots of this current spike, which has hit large migrant and refugee families, could lie in the cultural blind spots that have hindered our pandemic response from the very start.

Primarily white health experts, politicians and bureaucrats consistently failed to speak to culturally and linguistically diverse communities in a sensitive and appropriate way.

And Victorians are now paying the price. 

Blind spots from the start

In the early days of the lockdown, Scott Morrison warned Australians they might not be able to see their grandparents for some months.

But how useful is that advice for the kind of multi-generational family units that are more common in many South Asian and Middle Eastern communities?

That example is one of the many ways primary messaging around the pandemic failed to speak to the diverse life experiences of Australians. 

“Our messaging has been good if you speak English, are educated or live in a western nuclear family,” said Australian Catholic University social researcher Dr Jen Couch.

“But it hasn’t taken into account the lives that many migrant families live.”

UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws says far too much of the health focus failed to account for the way people’s individual responses to a pandemic are also influenced by social and cultural factors. 

“When you’re in a multicultural country like Australia you can’t always assume that a one size fits all approach to a pandemic prevention works,” McLaws said. 

The wrong message and the wrong people

Many recent virus vectors — meat processing workers at Cedar Meats, hotel security guards, large family gatherings in Melbourne — all involve people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Why didn’t the government’s messaging reach them?

State and federal governments say they’ve been translating materials, and consulting with community groups, but it may well be a question of too little too late. There have been reports going back to March about a lack of culturally-sensitive resources.

Astonishingly, the company communicating Victorian government information about confirmed cases only started using languages other than English on Monday, June 22. It was, they said, a blind spot.

One reason for this blind spot, says Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria chair Eddie Micallef, is a lack of ethnic diversity in government and health bureaucracy.

And that lack of awareness leads to outreach that may seem theoretically good but is in reality inadequate and tokenistic. For example, as the ABC pointed out this week, simply translating English health warnings, often written in clunky, formal language that is difficult to understand.

“Putting a leaflet in a letterbox and sending through a translation doesn’t mean it’s going to be read,” Micallef told Crikey. 

And when many migrants, particularly the elderly, get their information from often dubious sources like Facebook, Whatsapp and WeChat, there’s a worry government messages are getting lost in the noise.

Couch says one way to improve communication is to change who governments speak to. In a study with the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network, she found young people are critical in disseminating messaging in migrant communities, since they often have the best language skills, awareness of current affairs, and internet literacy. 

But a lot of cultural consultation tends to focus on older community leaders, like religious figures. Couch says that while it is important to talk to these people, it means younger migrants who might be a more strategic target get sidelined. 

A resurgence in racist rhetoric

Meanwhile, there are concerns the recent spike in Melbourne could lead to a spike in racial animosity towards migrant groups.

On Thursday, The Australian suggested a cluster was linked to a large family Eid celebration. Muslim groups are worried this framing could lead to a dangerous rise in Islamophobia. We’ve already seen a surge in anti-Asian racism throughout the pandemic. 

And the media dog-whistling has already begun. Yesterday, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt wrote that multiculturalism and racial diversity was to blame for Victoria’s new clusters.

Micallef says such finger-pointing is unhelpful and dangerous. 

“The outbreak on the ships were mostly Anglo, and we didn’t stereotype their ethnic background,” he said.

“[Bolt] says diversity is the problem, but to draw that conclusion is a very long bow and involves a very distorted view of history and the way the world operates.”

More diversity, after all, might have helped Victoria.

Has Australia dropped the ball on coronavirus messaging? What do you think the government should do to improve? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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