When hundreds of police officers descended on nine inner Melbourne tower blocks in July last year, more than 3,000 residents, many from refugee, Muslim or African backgrounds, were left shocked and fearful after being forcibly confined to their homes without warning.
Many complained that food parcels brought in were “scarce and mismatched” or culturally inappropriate, while others were left without medicines. All were deprived of basic liberties such as exercise and fresh air.
A December report from the Victorian Ombudsman found that the two-week hard lockdown “violated Victorian human rights laws”.
The immediate damage was to the mental and physical health of residents. The longer-term effects could harm the next wave of COVID-19 prevention: vaccinations.
“In the past, with the Flemington [towers] lockdown, people were not informed in time,” Mabor Chadhuo, executive director of the Centre for Migrant and Refugee Health in Melbourne, told HuffPost Australia.
Chadhuo said “trust” in the Victorian government has lessened after Premier Daniel Andrews announced the hard lockdown, and community leaders are now picking up the pieces.
“That actually affected the relationship between the government and the African community,” he said, adding some people have asked that, with the COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out, “How do we know now that the government and other people don’t have ill intentions?”
As Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout finally kicks off, community leaders are warning of the specific challenges faced by culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities that could affect the success of the public health effort.
The challenges include the spread of misinformation, language barriers, accessibility and lack of trust in how governments have handled the coronavirus pandemic so far.
Chadhuo, who recently hosted virtual COVID-19 vaccine information seminars in which local African communities could ask questions of doctors, said he saw more than 500 people log on to a Facebook livestream within the first five minutes.
He said some community members are “quite scared” about the vaccine, but it was their “responsibility as leaders” to “build trust” among people hesitant about getting the jab.
“Of course, our community comprises of young people, single mothers and people who don’t read well, so it’s better to give them the right information through interpreted languages and speak to them in local languages and tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.”
In the UK, politicians and celebrities have been enlisted to help dispel vaccine myths in South Asian communities.
These communities in Australia would likely “see the benefits” of getting the vaccine, said Dr Sunil Vyas, president of United Indian Associations (UIA). “They may be a bit more questioning at times, but particularly having migrated from India, they’ve seen the benefits of vaccination and preventative health care.”
However, Vyas said, “the problem arises” when even just one WhatsApp message from back home containing “wrong” information goes viral, instilling unnecessary panic amongst community members.
“One of my colleagues from UIA was telling me how his friend was frightened by some messages he received from India because someone was saying that with the vaccine, you die – which is totally false!” he said.
“It’s very wrong messaging, but unfortunately people get influenced by it. That’s the difficulty. Even though they’re open to actually having the vaccine, they may get a message from a family friend or a relative in India and then they get a bit uncertain.”
Dr Yadu Singh, president of the Federation of Indian Associations of NSW, said the “majority of the Indian community” in Australia don’t buy into “fake news”. However, he’s also come across some COVID-related “paranoia” in WhatsApp groups.
The Sydney-based cardiologist said he recently read a message in a South Asian chat group that “denied COVID is a thing”.
“I wrote ‘fake news’,” Singh told HuffPost Australia, emphasising how important it is for community leaders to set the record straight and reinforce that the vaccine will “reduce the risk of infection”.
UIA now plans to record multiple videos to be shared on the organisation’s social channels in which Vyas, who is also a GP in southwest Sydney, will tell viewers in English to “go and get vaccinated”.
“It’s a simple message to throw to people: Go and get vaccinated. There’s nothing to be too frightened about, but if you have any concerns, your local GPs are very well qualified to advise you about your personal situation,” Vyas said.
The videos will also be recorded in regional Indian languages, including Punjabi, Gujurati and Marathi.
Similar to UIA’s approach with the South Asian community, the Centre for Migrant and Refugee Health is delivering translated messaging. “It is our role to step in and give the right information to those people who don’t understand,” Chadhuo said.
Even if the messaging and language are effective, however, governments have been warned to not underestimate the challenges of physically reaching migrant communities.
“There’s a lot of families of sole parents with school-aged children so the vaccine clearly has to be in an accessible location so it’s affordable,” said RMIT University’s Margaret Heffernan. “Even though the COVID-19 vaccine is free, they’re not spending a lot of money trying to get to a vaccine clinic to have it because not everyone has the financial means or a car.”
Heffernan, who has worked with Indigenous and migrant populations in the implementation of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, said migrants communities are “very pro-vaccination, they generally trust the government,” but logistics and costs could pose issues.
“If you’ve got them in the large housing accommodation blocks in Melbourne, you set up a vaccine clinic in the housing block as a temporary thing... it’s accessible,” she said.
Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Plan
Last week Australia began mass COVID-19 vaccinations after the arrival of the first batch of more than 142,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The vast majority of Aussies will be injected with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be produced locally by the middle of March. Authorities plan to inoculate four million by March and expect to finish vaccinations by the end of October.
Quarantine and border personnel, front-line health workers, some First Nations Australians, and aged care and disability staff and residents will be in the first group to receive vaccines.
COVID‑19 vaccines will be free to all visa holders in Australia, including refugees, asylum seekers, temporary protection visa holders and those on bridging visas.
“People currently residing in detention facilities will also be eligible, including those whose visas have been cancelled,” said Greg Hunt, minister for health, in an announcement in early February.
Hunt said the government will be engaging with the national CALD Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group and multicultural agencies to execute an effective communications strategy targeting CALD groups, with the campaign including advertising in 32 languages.
It will also work with SBS for a series of vaccine rollout explanation videos in more than 60 languages, and with the Migration Council of Australia “to produce an animated vaccine explainer in 29 languages”.
With additional reporting by Carly Williams and Reuters.