Would you provide details about your ethnicity to help in Australia's coronavirus fight?

Unlike in the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, data on the cultural and linguistic diversity of those impacted by COVID-19 is scarce in Australia. There are calls for that to change.

A COVID-19 testing facility in Bonbeach, Melbourne.

A COVID-19 testing facility in Bonbeach, Melbourne. Source: AAP

Anyone can get COVID-19, but data from parts of the US and the UK suggests the virus has disproportionately affected ethnic minorities there. 

Mohammad Al-Khafaji is the CEO of FECCA, the peak body representing multicultural Australia. He is leading calls for more data about a person's cultural and linguistic diversity (CALD) to be collected during health consultations.

“Beyond just looking at postcodes and then making a whole bunch of assumptions about migrants living in a particular postcode, hence, this is what's happening to migrants all across Australia, I think we need to be a little bit smarter about how we use data," he told SBS News. 

"We believe the CALD data collected should be treated with some sensitivity, and be made available only for policymakers because we're concerned it might be utilised to blame migrants for negative outcomes for example in Australia." 

Whilst acknowledging the disruption collecting such data might have on states and territories, Mr Al-Khafaji said he believes the long term benefits will outweigh the cost. 

The organisation is due to publish an issues paper advocating consistent national data collection and reporting on cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in the coming days.

Under the Australian government's National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, there is no legal obligation for states and territories to collect any data on ethnicity, except for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander indicator. 

The Department of Health's latest epidemiology report shows that as of 30 August 2020, there have been 134 cases of COVID-19 cases who were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, representing approximately 0.5 per cent of cases. 

The 2016 Census found nearly half of all Australians were either born overseas or had a parent who was born overseas and 8.1 per cent spoke a language other than English at home. 

Andrew Jakubowicz is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He says “ignorance is not bliss” during a pandemic and data on language spoken at home should be collected for each person that presents for testing. 

“We don't know what is being missed,” he said. “We don’t know if the message about testing, for example, is being reached in migrant communities.

"When you have over 150 language groups, for instance in some parts of Australia, community health teams are really confronted with an impossible task of trying to work out who they should be speaking to. 

"They don't know who they should be talking to, and they don't know who they might be missing. And while community leaders are always valuable, they are not knowledgeable at the level of the social science needed for proper epidemiology to actually reach the people who want to be."

Major studies in the UK have all found significantly higher mortality rates among ethnic minority populations. Figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre in the UK revealed a third of COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care to April were from non-white ethnic backgrounds, despite accounting for only 13 per cent of the general population.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has also backed the call for more data to be collected. 

“We could tailor the care and tailor the information to that particular group of individuals that may be at higher risk or may be highly more infected at the moment,” said GP Dr Billy Stoupas.

Dr Stoupas said the college has identified through its vast network of GPs that some CALD patients may be avoiding important medical appointments due to fear of contracting COVID-19. 

Adel Salman, the vice president of the Islamic Council of Victoria said while collecting such data is a good idea in principle, there would need to be assurances about how it would be used and disseminated.  

“There have been some false claims made about the source of the second wave in Victoria, and somehow attributing that to Muslim gatherings," he said. 

“We would want some assurances around how the data will be used and who will have access to the data.”

The Australian Department of Health told SBS News: "non-specific information is collected by some jurisdictions, and where this does occur it includes: country of birth and interpreter requirements". 

SBS News contacted health departments in all states and territories asking whether they would support calls to collect data on a person's ethnicity. 

ACT Health said it collects information relating to people’s cultural background and the language they speak at home on a voluntary basis for confirmed cases of COVID-19 and people who are in quarantine.

Victoria Health noted it collected country of birth and language spoken from people who are confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

SA Health said there are no requirements to report notifiable diseases by ethnicity under South Australian law, other than Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.  

Queensland Health did not directly answer questions and stated it records a "significant amount of data beyond that which is mandated by law".  

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

Published 10 September 2020 at 2:27pm
By Lin Evlin