When the Opposition last week called on the Government to hand over $500,000 worth of grants to multicultural community leaders to break down communication barriers during the coronavirus pandemic, Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge was quick to accuse Labor of trying to establish a link between race and COVID-19.
“This has nothing to do with ethnicity and it is wrong for Labor to suggest this,” he said in a statement.
“We’ve had outbreaks on cruise ships, from weddings in the Barossa and people returning from Aspen.
“None of these involved multicultural communities.”
Tudge is right to point out that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate.
And his comments may be an attempt to shield multicultural communities from racist attacks.
Coronavirus has impacted a wide range of communities — not just multicultural ones — and even very rich (and white) celebrities like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have tested positive to COVID-19 while in Australia.
But Labor’s push for money for community leaders was not about drawing a link between ethnicity and coronavirus, it was about calling on the Government to improve the way it has been communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
It is, nevertheless, worth asking whether Australia’s unique multicultural makeup exposed a gap that has left the country vulnerable to the virus in a way it didn’t need to be.
Are multicultural communities more at risk?
Members of multicultural communities are statistically more likely to suffer from chronic diseases. They’re also more likely to miss out on important health information because many are not engaged with public health messages.
These points were canvassed by the COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee report Risks of resurgence of COVID-19 in Australia.
The committee was set up to provide advice on Australia’s health response to the crisis and is chaired by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd.
It found the “intersecting risk factors” means multicultural groups are among those at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus, and even passing it on without realising.
But interestingly, the same report detailed how it heard from community leaders who said they had only been engaged by the Government in an “ad hoc” manner or not at all.
The committee described that as a missed opportunity.
The Health Minister Greg Hunt and Alan Tudge have pointed out they have met with hundreds of community leaders during the coronavirus pandemic and information about COVID-19 has been translated into dozens of languages — available on a convenient, centralised website.
Community leaders have argued that method of getting a message across is often inefficient.
How do you get the message through?
Much of my Lebanese-Australian family is unable to read the Arabic translations of public health messages because they are written in “fusha” or Modern Standard Arabic.
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, the chief executive of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils Australia (FECCA), has explained that this formal Arabic requires a quality education in the language to understand.
The Federal Government has worked hard during the pandemic to appeal to different audiences by translating and dubbing coronavirus campaigns.
Some of these translated campaigns come complete with a smiling Dr Nick Coatsworth speaking in Greek, Korean or Arabic about how to wash your hands.
But many community leaders, and even academics, have said that simply translating or dubbing a ready-made campaign may not resonate with people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
To do that, tailored messages at a grassroots level are needed.
Respected community leaders therefore need to be engaged on the ground, whether that be a priest, imam, Indigenous elder or cultural representative.
As the COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory committee’s report noted, a community group’s true leader is not always the person who initially comes forward.
That means governments might instead be engaging with someone who has self-nominated to be a position of authority, rather than a member of the community who is truly respected.
The best approach is to talk directly to community members who can confirm who their leader is.
That can only be discovered by talking to people in communities.
It is no easy feat
The enormity of the challenge faced by the Government is perhaps best represented by Australia’s South Sudanese community. It has more than 60 ethnic groups, with distinct languages and cultural ties
To engage with different leaders, from different ethnic, religious and cultural groups is a time consuming and difficult task — much more complex than simply translating a message about washing your hands or keeping socially distant.
But many argue it is necessary and some are wary of differences being missed. As one leader so bluntly put it the other day: “The Government engages with one of us and says: ‘OK, that’s the ethnics done’.”
The Victorian outbreak has seen the State Government pledge to “redouble” its efforts to engage with multicultural communities, as public health officials start door knocking and visiting train stations and shopping centres.
Acknowledging a link isn’t about blaming culturally and linguistically diverse communities for the spike in cases.
It’s about abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach, because we’re not a one-size-fits-all country. It’s about acknowledging this is about ethnicity, because ethnicity is a part of our national identity.
And in doing that, potentially filling a gap in Australia’s response to a virus that isn’t going away for some time.