THE rise in new COVID-19 cases in Melbourne last week shone a light on some of the cracks in our health system and our society more broadly.

Centred around a number of suburbs in the city’s multicultural north, the disease hotspots are in areas with “very strong pockets of disadvantage”, according to Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, who herself lives in one of the affected suburbs.

“We acknowledge the challenges in some communities for whom English may not be their first language in understanding the public health messaging, and this is why we are going to double our efforts in working with those communities,” Mikakos told SBS News.

The new push has been welcomed by community leaders, but it does raise questions about why this was not more of a focus from the beginning.

Accessing reliable health information, and fully understanding it, is a challenge for most people, but far more so for those whose first language is not English.

Despite long-standing efforts to address the problem, research continues to show an association between limited English skills and poorer health outcomes, as an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report noted last year.

Solutions have been hard to find, not least because of shortfalls in data on experiences and outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse people in the health system.

Australian Bureau of Statistics standards establish the minimum indicators that should be collected (country of birth, main language other than English spoken at home, and proficiency in English), yet even this basic information is not consistently included in national health datasets, the AIHW report said.

If we really want to identify, and address, the specific needs of different groups, we need to collect more detailed information, including length of residency in Australia, language use patterns, need for an interpreter, parents’ country of birth, and refugee status, the report went on.

So how does all this relate to COVID-19?

Sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz argues the pandemic has exposed a “dark data hole” in Australian health records, one that puts multicultural communities at risk.

The National Notifiable Diseases system does not collect data on ethnicity, Professor Jakubowicz writes, and his multiple requests to health authorities have failed to elicit any information on COVID-19 infection or testing rates in different communities.

“The failure to collect data on cultural background and language leaves potentially vulnerable groups without adequate information, and epidemiologists and public health officials without a realistic sense of the landscape in which they need to move,” he argues.

“If sanitary social distancing and testing are the key weapons against the disease at least in the short term, then rigorous documentation of how the pandemic is affecting different groups must underpin strategies that seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure potential ‘spreaders’ can take appropriate and rational precautions.”

Australia has so far largely dodged the COVID-19 bullet. Protected by our geographical distance, we have also been fortunate that federal and state leaders have taken a mostly bipartisan approach and one based on the advice of medical experts.

The catastrophe unfolding in the US shows what the alternative might have looked like.

Melbourne’s rise in new cases, though, is a warning that we cannot be complacent about our success so far.

If we are to maintain that record, the pandemic response needs to reflect the reality of our multicultural society in all its complex diversity – and that means everything from data collection to communications strategies.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.


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8 thoughts on “Melbourne’s COVID-19 second wave exposes multicultural “data hole”

  1. Frank says:

    Whether Melbourne’s multicultural make-up is good or bad is beside the point. We are in a situation where a portion of the population are too ignorant, precious, self important and lacking in social responsibility to be vaccinated.
    So far we haven’t managed to convince a significant group of Australians, whose roots go back generations in this country, to do the right thing in observing a few simple rules and requests.
    Little surprise that we can’t communicate these requirements to our newer Australians who tend to live in closely knit enclaves, with several generations under the same roof. Many of these people struggle to understand English and are more inclined to listen to local community leaders who probably have little or no scientific background.
    All said, best wishes and a speedy return to normality to the people of Melbourne.

  2. Martin Mirabito says:

    I noticed that all derogatory statements are anonymous

  3. Anonymous says:

    Multiculturalism is a failed experiment in Australia.

    Integration and assimilation is the way forward. Race, religion and skin colour are irrelevant. We are all equal. Be insipid by Martin Luther King.

    Unfortunately, the Labor Party gets a lot of votes from “New” Australians and Non English speaking Australians. Therefore, they protect them and deflect criticism of their sometimes poor behaviour.

  4. Anonymous says:

    English is the language of Australia and until we vote to change to another it should be a requisite for all to be able to communicate in English before becoming a citizen.
    To be able to disseminate up to date Pandemic information in hundreds of languages and dialects is at best idealistic.
    It is not racism but simple common-sense.

  5. Elizabeth Brooke says:

    I agree with you Dr DeLeacey,

    Multiculturalism is a cozy term, but we have lost sight of the need for integration in terms of respect for the law, and the good of the community as a whole, which depends on shared values. We can be proud of our ancestral heritage, but we should be more proud of the nation to which we now belong.
    Our population has become so diverse that the values which built that nation are diluted and we are in danger of becoming a country torn by a form of tribalism.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am surprised no-one has commented on whether there is any link between the sudden increase in case numbers and participation in the recent BLM rallies.

  7. Philip Morris says:

    If we are looking to collect data that might be relevant to the health and behavioural responses to medical advice, then in addition to cultural and language characteristics, information about religious or faith beliefs may also be relevant.

  8. Dr De Leacy says:

    Thank you again for your interesting research, comments and personal views as a point of further discussion.
    I personally believe that the introduction of the neologistic term ‘multiculturalism’ into the Australian lexicon to describe the deliberate government exercise in political and social engineering in the 1980s to describe a hoped for state of affairs where all our citizens co-exist and the share common core humanitarian values that are intrinsic to our democracy as well as having an understanding of the community’s democratic institutions whilst still retaining their own distinct ethnic identities has been something of a curate’s egg in truth. Good in parts.
    Like all abstract nouns, (eg love) it simply doesn’t exist except in consensus shared evidence.
    The clarity of the rights vs responsibilities discussion that was prominent in the post-war migration surge for both the host Australian nation and our newcomer migrants has largely been ignored with almost all discussion and press reporting concerning about our Multiculturalism experiment focussing the failure of the Australian government to supply an ever expanding list of social welfare and support services for the huge number of ethnic minorities now living here.
    The whole feel good nature and the obvious positive intent implicit in the epithet itself and the constant recourse to an attribution of racism whenever any questioning comment is made of the project, has prevented a clear and reasoned review of where we as a nation have arrived with this social engineering exercise.
    Clearly, the blindingly obvious take home message from the above article is that communication in English (the world language) is absolutely critical to reaching these ethnic folk in all areas of civic interaction in the future. I.e. A massive exercise in language training matched with a sense of responsibility on the part of the ethnic communities to embrace this training is urgently needed and has been overlooked for decades by governments of either persuasion.
    For all the best intentions, Australia does appear to be on the verge of transforming its Multicultural ideal for a Multi-Ghetto reality.

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