Ethnic minorities in Melbourne felt targeted by Victorian government referencing ‘large families’

A man wearing a face mask is seen outside Flinders Street Station in Melbourne as the city emerges from lockdown. Source: AAP

The ‘second wave’ in Victoria has subsided but some of the state’s ethnic communities have felt hurt by the government’s use of language around large families.

Victoria has not recorded a positive case of COVID-19 in over three weeks.

And as the state rejoices over the success in containing the spread of the 'second wave', some members of Victoria's multicultural communities are still feeling hurt by the Victorian government's references surrounding big families making the state's 'second wave' more difficult to contain.

The Feed spoke to members of Melbourne's ethnic communities who say whenever 'large families' have been mentioned during the pandemic they believe it's been code for 'ethnic families'.

And have said they did the best they could to manage the second wave, by taking a proactive approach to ensure that the virus didn't spread within their families.

Abdirahman* comes from a family of eight and tested positive to COVID-19 in October.

"The fact that we were an ethnic family, I felt like they were keeping a more close eye on us," Abdirahman told The Feed.

Abdirahman is of East African descent and lives in Melbourne's northern suburb of Reservoir.

He told The Feed his family was prepared "the minute" he tested positive.

"I told my parents I said, 'Listen, guys, you know, I got tested positive. I think everyone should isolate inside the house now'," Abdirahman said.

Last month, Victoria's chief health officer Brett Sutton spoke in a press conference about the differences between the state's first wave of COVID-19, compared to their second.

He said, "I don't think anyone really understands what a gargantuan task the contact tracing has been through this wave," he said in relation to the outbreak."

“The average family size in Australia is about 2.5 people,” he added.

“We’ve made estimates that the average family size for the 20,000 cases in this second wave has been between six and 10 people.”

Sutton also spoke about the difficulties dealing with “issues of language and cultural barriers”.

But the Melbourne northern suburbs outbreak in October saw Victoria’s Department of Human and Health Services (DHHS) garner criticism for their communication with one family in Preston that led to a spread in cases. 

And Victoria’s delays in contact tracing at the beginning of the second wave has been widely criticised. According to a new national contact tracing review Victoria have shifted their contact tracing efforts from a centralised system to decentralised approach, similar to that used in New South Wales. 

Abdirahman felt he fell into the category referred to by DHHS -- but when it came to slowing the spread, he considered he was ahead of the game. 

Making a solid plan

After being tested, Abdirahman was advised by DHHS to go into hotel quarantine but he wasn't comfortable with that suggestion -- as he said his family already had a plan.

Instead, he moved into his family's backyard cabin, after consulting with DHHS.

It provided Abdirahman with the ability to easily access fresh air and exercise while isolating from his family.

"I told DHHS that I'm going to be in the backyard. No one's going to come there, and they were like, 'yeah that's fine'."

But issues started to arise, he says, when communicating with DHHS about the family's shared bathroom: they have only one bathroom for the entire family of eight to use.

But in the meantime, he took steps to ensure he didn't expose his family.

"I made sure whenever I went to the toilet, I had gloves, I had a mask. Whatever I touch, I made sure I wiped it done. I had wipes, sanitizer, I had all the cleaning products, everything in the bathroom," he said.

Later, DHHS suggested it was best for him to go into hotel quarantine.

"I said to them, 'Listen, guys, I live in a bungalow. If you guys could find some sort of like renting out like a little portable toilet up for me outside that would be great'."

The idea was positively received, according to Abdirahman. He said he'd be happy to reimburse DHHS for any costs.

Despite that, he says he was asked the same question by "like ten people" at DHHS over the next three days -- hearing a different response each time.

But after the three days where Abdirahman claims he asked DHHS staff 10 to 15 times about a portable toilet, they informed him that it was not possible.

"And I was like, I kind of think it's kind of late now. But all right," he said.

Abdirahman continued to isolate in his bungalow, and the family plan worked. No one else tested positive for COVID-19.

"I felt like I handled it pretty well," Abdirahman said.

"I didn't infect anyone with the virus. So I think the way our plan went, I'm thinking we did pretty good because obviously no one tested positive in my house."

What are the dangers of singling out 'big families'?

Professor Ghassan Hage specialises in anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne. He believes the highlighting of 'big families' as a factor for the difficulties in Victoria's second wave may well be true but it has harmful effects.

"To go and pinpoint, and say, 'the big family is slowing us down in the fight about COVID', I mean, seems quite obviously racist to me," Prof Hage told The Feed.

"Because you're just kind of like, highlighting something to differentiate and hurt people rather than creating a sense of collectivity."

Prof Hage says it's the responsibility of the government to resolve any communication issue whether it's linguistic or otherwise.

"[It's] not the responsibility of the group to bridge the communicative gap," he said.

"And whenever there's a communicative gap like this, if you are blaming the group for it you are, in fact, shying away from your own responsibility.

"Because it's your job to bridge that gap."

Miscommunication at the beginning of Melbourne's 'second wave'

*Fatima comes from a big family of nine in Melbourne's outer western-suburb of Truganina. She told The Feed getting clear communication from DHHS to contain the virus in their household was difficult and confusing when one of the family came into contact with a positive case - and not because of language or cultural barriers.

Her family were told by DHHS on June 28 that their brother was a close contact of a teacher at his school, Al-Taqwa College. The family was told that he should self-isolate until July 4.

DHHS currently contact all positive cases within 24 hours, however, during the height of the second wave they say they initiated contact with positive cases within 48 hours, while they say close contacts were followed up as soon as possible.

But Fatima says her family were informed seven days after her brother was exposed.

During those seven days before finding out her brother was a close contact he shared a room with another sibling who has a chronic illness and he had recently undergone an organ transplant.

"My mother was obviously naturally just very worried. It did take quite some time for him to eventually get that transplant," Fatima told The Feed.

Fatima's brother was tested on July 4 but was told to keep isolating until the results came back from DHHS.

On July 6, the family got a call from DHHS confirming their son tested positive for COVID-19, and they'll be in touch about the next steps to take.

During this period, DHHS followed up positive cases with regular check-ups which included door knocks and phone calls to ensure people isolating had the necessary support.

However, Fatima says they didn't hear from anyone for a long time.

"I've seen other people that were positive. And they were told, listen, the whole family has to self isolate because this person is positive. They were given little care packages, they had regular police check-ups," she said.

"But with my family, after hearing that my little brother was positive, no one got back to us."

The same day her brother was informed by DHHS that he tested positive, the only members of Fatima's family of nine who were advised to get tested were those who also went to Al-Taqwa College.

text message dhhs
The text message Fatima's father received about his other child at Al Taqwa College being a close contact.
Supplied

But she had recently graduated from a bachelor’s degree in public health so she feels she was prepared.

“I was like, ‘Listen because he is positive. And he's been in contact with all of us for the first seven days when was meant to self-isolate. Let's just all get tested,’” she said.

DHHS’ advice at the time - and remains the same now -  is that the isolation period after a positive test is at least ten days but can vary on the circumstance. And until given clearance from DHHS positive cases must continue to isolate. 

She says her brother continued to self-isolate for up to 20 days before they heard back from DHHS. 

“DHHS contacted my dad and just basically told him that hey, ‘we're so sorry, we haven't gotten back to you, you guys shouldn't have been isolating for like the past fortnight’,” Fatima said.

'There's this perception that ethnic families aren't doing the right thing'

Unlike Fatima's family, Abdirahman remembers many visits by the Australian Defence Force, who checked in on his family in a health capacity in Melbourne's northern suburbs.

He says the attention was "intimidating" and caused a scene that saw neighbours watch from their houses.

"They came to our house, probably four times in a week. I know some families [where] they came probably once or twice," he said.

"There's this perception that ethnic families aren't doing the right thing. That perception is the reason why they are coming here."

A DHHS spokesperson told The Feed in a statement throughout the pandemic their priority has been to ensure all Victorians have the "vital public health messages and support" to keep safe.

"We're working closely with multicultural groups to tailor messages to specific communities about how to stay safe, getting tested and understanding the symptoms of coronavirus that resonates with them," a DHHS spokesperson said.

"This approach has been designed to be flexible so we can target our efforts where it's most needed – based on up to date epidemiological data.

"Victoria's cultural diversity is one of our greatest assets and as we know this virus doesn't discriminate. We've seen how quickly it can spread through communities with deadly consequences, so it's important that we all work together."

Despite DHHS' efforts Fatima didn't feel their approach helped her family.

She echoed Abdirahman's sentiments, "I just feel like there's this massive misconception that people from larger families or like immigrant families don't understand the messages when that's not isolated to just immigrant families."

“I feel those messages, like with my personal experience, were not clear to begin with. And this can happen to anyone, it could have happened to a family where everyone knew how to speak English.”

*Names have been changed