As coronavirus surges in Victoria, governments are being urged to overhaul multicultural outreach

Amid a surge in new coronavirus cases in Victoria, governments are being urged to centre community groups in new multicultural awareness initiatives.

Tina Guido (third from left) during an IndianCare event

Tina Guido (third from left) during an IndianCare event Source: Supplied

There are calls for new multicultural coronavirus outreach programs after a panel of experts was told the federal government failed to properly consult migrant communities when developing Australia’s pandemic response.

It was revealed on Wednesday that a report produced last month by the National COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee (NCHRAC) was told by multicultural community members they were involved in the government’s coronavirus response on an “ad-hoc basis or not at all”.

There has been a concerning new spike in COVID-19 cases in Victoria, where the state government has listed several local government areas as hotspots. Of the six council areas - Hume, Casey, Brimbank, Moreland, Cardinia and Darebin - several have large migrant populations.

On Monday, the Victorian government announced it would step up coronavirus support to multicultural communities. An "army" of doorknockers will provide residents with additional information about the virus and remind them to get tested and to stay home if feeling unwell.

But Tina Guido, the general manager of IndianCare, a non-for profit group which advocates for the Indian diaspora in Victoria, said the government should consider giving funds directly to multicultural groups, who can then provide better and more specific information to their community.

She said some older and at-risk community members have taken it upon themselves to venture out in public - putting themselves and others at risk - because the Victorian government’s food relief packages have not been culturally specific.

An IndianCare NDIS community education session

“Some of the food packages have been filled with items that did not meet cultural food tastes, and so they went out to the shops get their own food, possibly spreading the virus,” she told SBS News.

“In terms of outreach in the community, what needs to occur is more than just the door knocking and giving of general advice … maybe the government could provide culturally appropriate information and support, or we could do that if they give us the funding.”

IndianCare’s offices are in the Melbourne suburb of St Albans, which is located within the boundaries of the Brimbank council.

At the time of the 2016 census, just 35.7 per cent of the total Brimbank population only spoke English at home. Around 11 per cent (11.2) of the population was born in Vietnam and 4.8 per cent in India.

“We have many clients in the hotspots. We deal with a lot of the communities based in not only Brimbank, but also Cardinia, Hume and Casey,” Ms Guido said. “It is concerning.”

People leave Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Sunday, 21 June, 2020.
Source: AAP

In the other hotspot areas, six per cent of residents in Casey were born in India, while 8.2, 6.2 and 6.0 per cent of residents in Hume were born in Iraq, Turkey and India respectively, according to the 2016 census.

In Darebin, 43.7 per cent of residents spoke a language other than English at home.

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, the chief executive of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, said it is crucial that any changes to multicultural outreach programs closely involves community groups.

“We know that multicultural communities do have some challenges when we try to communicate various health messages with them - that’s why it's important to work with groups who have deep connections to communities to make sure the message gets to those who need it the most.” 

‘Not too late to engage’

The NCHRAC report specifies Medicare access, financial hardship, and fear of authorities as key barriers for vulnerable groups accessing COVID-19 testing.

"It is important to know who we are talking with and to remember that nationality does not always equate to ethnicity and language," the report states.

"Many groups, particularly young people, are not engaged or do not understand health messages and are therefore less likely to access services such as testing.

"Engagement with grass-root communities is important."

Mr Al-Khafaji said the report’s findings did not come as a surprise and an opportunity to revamp community outreach was still at hand.

“FECCA three months ago raised some of these concerns and suggested an advisory committee be formed so we can provide feedback to the relevant health authorities. Now this report is confirming what we said initially,” he said.

"It’s still not too late to engage. But it’s really important to make sure that when we design policies or programs we design it for the most vulnerable in the community and make sure it’s inclusive.”

FECCA CEO Mohammad Al Khafaji.
Source: SBS

In-language issues

Health Minister Greg Hunt rubbished the NCHRAC report’s claims it neglected migrant communities, insisting the government had consistently been in “direct community engagement” with them. 

Mr Hunt said the government's national COVID-19 awareness broadcasts exist in more than 20 languages and a range of fact sheets are available in over 60 languages.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told ABC radio on Wednesday the state government had made efforts to warn multicultural communities about the pandemic “from the start”, but conceded some may have missed the messages.

But despite those efforts, some say the materials were not easy to find or always up-to-date.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos addresses the media
Source: AAP

Ms Guido said some members of the Indian community in Victoria have reported issues finding in-language information when they need it.

“In India, there are a number of languages used: Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu,” she said.

“We need simple information that is available in-language for us in multiple languages and is easily accessible on main pages, not found after trawling through big English words and clicking through a maze of pages. 

It’s too much. We can see information about washing hands, but we don’t know where the testing sites are or the latest restrictions.”

Mr Al-Khafaji said what has caused the spike in Victoria was still unclear and it was important “not to point the finger at multicultural communities”. 

“But it’s worth reviewing some of the effectiveness of the government messaging and how we make sure the message gets across in a timely manner,” he said.

“There’s usually a delay and a lag between the time that something’s been issued and to the time it’s been translated and gets to the community. With the nature of COVID-19, when things are moving so quickly, by the time it gets to the community, it is already outdated.”

Forced on to social media

Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Wednesday that personal interaction with migrant communities would be important in reducing the number of new cases, as the government has learned that some do not trust government messaging.

“There are people who use social media from their country of origin or amongst their work of friends as their primary source of information. A lot of that is misinformation [and] it tells them that it's all rubbish messaging from government,” he said.

“So we have to meet people where they are and we have to get those messages penetrated a much as possible.”

Ms Mikakos added: “We’ve had information out in many, many languages, but I guess some people are less anxious about these issues, that they're not really watching mainstream media. They're only getting their information in their own language from their own news sources.” 

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton
Source: AAP

Mr Al-Khafaji said it is important to find out why people are relying on social media and information from WhatsApp groups, rather than listening to official information from the government.

“It may be due to some of the fears that some people, particularly asylum seekers, have of governments in general,” he said.

“The other issue is that some of the newer communities, they don’t have a big community to rely on and access to their particular language could be scarce, and so their only resource is news articles or WhatsApp groups form back home.

“We want to caution against that and urge people to listen to health authorities.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

Additional reporting by Pablo Vinales, AAP.

Published 24 June 2020 at 7:22pm, updated 24 June 2020 at 8:14pm
By Evan Young