24/06/2020 4:15 PM AEST | Updated 06/08/2020 4:02 PM AEST

Government's 'Ad Hoc' COVID-19 Messaging To Migrant Groups Is Scrutinised By Community Leaders

Victoria's surge in coronavirus cases is amongst suburbs with large culturally and linguistically diverse populations.

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As the number of coronavirus cases rises in Victoria amongst suburbs with large migrant populations, the government is under scrutiny for its “ad hoc” approach to communicating COVID-19 messaging to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.

Victoria’s health authorities advised people to stay away from six local virus hot spots in Melbourne this week, some of which (such as Brimbank and Darebin) have residents of various ethnic groups.

According to the the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), local government area Brimbank has a significant Vietnamese population as well as Italian and Chinese residents, while Darebin has Greek and Italian communities. 

Victoria’s Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said authorities would “redouble their efforts” to reach CALD groups, but some community leaders ask why the government didn’t listen to their requests for engagement “three months ago”. 

“I think where the pit falls are is governments, state and federal, did not engage and consult with the peak bodies that are connected well within the community,” Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of Federation of Ethnic Community Councils Australia (FECCA) told HuffPost Australia on Wednesday.

Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of Federation of Ethnic Community Councils Australia (FECCA)

Al-Khafaji said it’s these community organisations that “can provide sound advice quickly to ensure that the translated materials or whatever the message is, gets to the people who need it the most”.

“At the moment the process seems to be a little bit ad hoc, there is no consultation on any of this.”

The Victorian government’s Health and Human Services website has COVID-19 information posters translated in 53 languages, and a coronavirus hotline is also available for interpreter services. 

The country’s multicultural broadcaster SBS is also communicating vital public health information to CALD communities during the pandemic in over 60 languages.

“The government just translating materials into 53 languages is fine, but if those materials don’t actually get to the people who need them the most and they’re not in a format that they’ll understand, what’s the point?” said Al-Khafaji. 

“This is why I think setting up advisory committees is really important. We can provide that feedback quickly, so governments and departments don’t waste resources and energy and assets and actually try and be a little bit more strategic, a bit more coordinated.

“We can provide advice on all of that if they actually listened to the advice when we provided it earlier on three months ago.” 

Molina Asthana, Victorian Convenor of the Asian Australian Alliance, agreed “there is an access issue”. 

“It is important to note that direct translation is not enough, messaging and contextualisation is equally important,” she told HuffPost Australia. 

“Many of the communities would not even know where to access that information, especially the elderly who are usually more likely to access this information physically ( for eg at temples, festivals, community events etc) than digitally, which medium, unfortunately, is not available at the moment.”

On Wednesday Victoria’s Chief Health Minister Brett Sutton told reporters that health authorities are “meeting with a whole number of ethnic community representatives”.

Supplied/Molina Asthana
Molina Asthana, Victorian Convenor of the Asian Australian Alliance,
Darrian Traynor via Getty Images
Brett Sutton the Chief Health Officer of Victoria 

“We have always advocated to engage with our intelligence team around where are our cases, what communities do they represent and to use all mechanisms to reach into them,” he said, adding it’s a “complex process” and “not a simple case of pamphlets and campaign materials and banner to reach into communities”. 

In reference to the recent surge of Victoria cases, he added, “When we have seen who’s been identified as cases in recent days, and where those chains of transmission have occurred, we have clearly reached into those communities”. 

Sutton also expressed concern about CALD communities being misinformed through social media from their country of origin.  

“There are people who use social media from their country of origin or amongst their work of friends as their primary source of information,” he said.

“A lot of that is information. A lot of it tells them that it’s all rubbish messaging from government. So we have to meet people where they are and we have to get those messages penetrated a much as possible.” 

WILLIAM WEST via Getty Images
Medical workers staff a drive-through COVID-19 testing site located in a shopping centre carpark in Melbourne on June 23, 2020.

Al-Khafaji said “this is what happens when there is a gap in clear, concise and understandable government messaging and that “we have to be very careful not to point the finger at migrant communities”. 

“A very small number of migrant communities are fearful of governments and don’t trust governments. So what they rely on is their community’s WhatsApp group or the information that they are used to which is probably some kind of fake news kind of WhatsApp from back home,” he said.

“Or even, there are some languages that the government is not translating material for because they are new and emerging communities. The community is not large enough for them to translate materials for so what they rely on is any information around coronavirus from other countries which is not within the Australian standards.” 

Language barrier concerns have not been confined to Victoria, and have been present for months. 

Southern Hope Community Organisation founder Emmanuel Kondok has been communicating with South Sudanese and African communities in Western Sydney.

Emmanuel Kondok is the founder of Southern Hope Community Organisation that provides support to South Sudanese and African communities in Western Sydney. He’s been communicating with clients, many of whom have been confused by the coronavirus crisis. 

“There’s a lot of phone calls, clients want to know what is going on and when the office is going to be open,” Kondok told HuffPost Australia back in April.

“There are people who may be in need of filling out some forms for unemployment volunteer applications. Some know English, and for some it’s very hard. Even though they know English, due to the cultural sensitivity and understanding, they usually come to me, especially the older people.” 

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