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Afghan community accuses Victoria's health officer of 'singling' them out during COVID-19 briefing

Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton puts on a mask while he speaks to the media during a press conference in Melbourne Source: AAP

A group representing the Afghan community in Victoria has voiced 'concern and disappointment' about being 'singled out' by the state's Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton and media reports during a daily COVID-19 update.

The Afghan Australian Community of Victoria group has criticised the state's Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton after he made direct reference to that community during a daily briefing on new coronavirus cases.

It comes as health authorities try to contain a coronavirus outbreak in Narre Warren and Hallam in the Melbourne local government area of Casey.

On Monday, there were reports that members of two Afghan families in Hallam were among the nine new infections in that area.

AAP

Addressing the media on that day, Prof Sutton said he had offered to speak to the community himself.

"Having been to Afghanistan a couple of times over the years, I want to be able to reflect on my cultural experiences and the fact I know that there are universal motivations that every family has to do the right thing to protect their own families and the wider community,” Mr Sutton said. 

“That is absolutely the case here and I know they're motivated to get on top of this as much as anyone." 

Mr Sutton also said it was more likely that the new outbreak had come from a high-risk workplace rather than breaches of the state’s health directives. 

But authorities on Friday said the cluster from the outbreak had risen to 34 cases among five families in Hallam, Clyde, Narre Warren South and Cranbourne North. 

"We've also seen in this particular cluster visiting of houses beyond the 5km radius,” said Jeroen Weimar from the Victorian Department of Health.

Zahid Popal, spokesperson for the Afghan Australian Community of Victoria
Zahida Popal says Afghan community members are "concerned and disappointed" by Prof Sutton's comments.
Supplied/Zahida Popal

Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng confirmed there have been no new cases in the Casey cluster overnight, after recording five new cases on Thursday. 

Authorities have held community forums, set up pop-up testing sites in the Casey and Dandenong area and urged residents who have symptoms, particularly those who have visited Fountain Gate shopping centre, to come forward for testing. 

Despite the containment efforts, Mr Sutton’s reference to the cultural group has caused “concerns and disappointment” within the Afghan community, says Afghan Australian Community of Victoria spokesperson Zahida Popal. 

“We confirm that government and health authorities have not confirmed the ethnicity of the source of the recent spark nor do they collect such empirical data,” she said. 

“Therefore, any connection to the Afghan community is grossly unfair." 

Ms Popal said there can be many ways to catch the coronavirus, but a person’s “cultural and racial background is not one of them”. 

“The Afghan Australian community of Victoria is deeply hurt and concerned by the inferences made in the media and to an extent, it has caused a sense of distrust in the system. 

“For decades racial minority groups have suffered from structural racism that allows for media and politicians to demonise them every single day.” 

Ms Popal called on health authorities to be more cautious in their language while reporting on the pandemic “so that the media does not, in turn, manipulate and sensationalise their statements to pedal their own rhetoric”. 

Responding to a question during Friday's press briefing, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the virus doesn’t discriminate based on cultural and ethnic background, nor should the public health response. 

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Premier Daniel Andrews said he has never made any references to any particular community.
AAP

“I’ve at no point, in what is now many, many months, made any references to any particular community,” Mr Andrews said. 

“This thing is wickedly infectious, it spreads quickly and silently, and the one thing that’s almost certain, if you’ve got this, and you go and spend time in other people’s home, you’ll give it to them. That’s the basic point here. 

“So just like the virus doesn’t discriminate, neither does the public health response that we bring to bear."

Mr Andrews said Mr Sutton’s comments were entirely a matter for him. 

Mr Sutton apologised to members of the state's Afghan community on Saturday, saying he “inadvertently called out Afghanistan" while discussing coronavirus cases in south-east Melbourne.

He opened his coronavirus briefing by saying sorry to the community and said it was inappropriate for him to call out Afghanistan.

"I know that members of the Afghan community might have felt singled out by statements I made recently," he told reporters.

"That was absolutely not my intention. So, sorry."

Metropolitan Melbourne residents are subject to Stage 4 restrictions and must comply with a curfew between the hours of 9pm and 5am.

During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons. Between 5am and 9pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative.

The full list of restrictions can be found here.

All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live. People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others.

Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus