Why a Multicultural Act would help reduce the impact of COVID on Australia’s multicultural communities.

We (don’t) know what has been happening to Australia’s multicultural communities during COVID, but if we had a Multicultural Act maybe we would. At least distraught community organisations would not have to constantly plead to governments for information about illness, hospitalisation, and deaths amongst their language group.

Throughout the pandemics local geographies have provided conceptual proxies for real demographies. Sometimes the data released by government has just been stupid. The main areas with lots of international students were portrayed as low vaccination zones, and given short shrift in the media for failure to care.  The vaccination proportions were based on the 2016 census base, when the universities in Randwick, Sydney City, Melbourne City and elsewhere were chocker-block full with Indian and Chinese students. They were all counted in the population base in 2016 (creating what statisticians call the denominator in the equation). Then the vaxx count in those areas as elsewhere formed the numerator in 2021. At its most extreme the postcode for UNSW showed zero vaccinations (colleges closed, international students gone elsewhere or home), producing a numerator of 0. The denominator whatever it had been in 2016 was added to the Randwick local government denominator. Screamingly low – as with Bondi Junction where all the locally resident students here for English language courses in the colleges had been sent away as the colleges closed.

When I phoned my local state MP to suggest they might like to question the figures they were posting weekly (postcode 2052 showing zero) I was told not to be stupid, of course the figures were good; they came from the NSW Government. So Randwick City, where I live, has continued to look very poor on vaxx rates . Whoever is doing the calculations on vaxx rates for localities needs a sociology lesson really quickly.

So how does this tie-in to a Multiculturalism Act? There is no Commonwealth agency that holds the hose for culturally diverse communities. There used to be a number until Howard cancelled them all in 1996/1997 – the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research for two. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments refused to replace them and the ALP since has avoided any engagement with moving forward in this regard. The Turnbull-Abbott-Morrison governments simply turned the other way, muttering “nothing to see here”. The Greens have a policy proposal out there in this area, covering both rights and an institutional arrangement to progress them, which would do some of the work but not enough.

The main Commonwealth advisory body, the Australian Multicultural Council, has been silent on the impact of COVID on multicultural communities, as indeed on most things, as it was designed to be. The Australian Human Rights Commission Race Discrimination Commissioner is proposing a new set of anti-racism actions, but these still remain within the boundary of individual discrimination, not systemic failure. The advisory group on cultural and linguistic diversity to Commonwealth Health was not set up for nearly a year after the COVID pandemic began, and has no executive authority, spending most of its time checking translations of rapidly changing COVID information for cultural and linguistic bloopers.

What can we deduce from the proxy data that is out there? Firstly as with earlier waves, the correlates of “bad experiences” including mortality are linked to age, underlying morbidities, overcrowding, poor health literacy, and economic marginality. Vaccination rates may well be affected by cultural orientations to vaccines and to culturally-specific antivax campaigns also associated with some religious sects. What we know about cultural diversity in Australia is that all these factors are more extensive for multicultural communities. We are looking at class correlates of migrants, and cultural orientations (which have many different trajectories). 

No one in government is holding a hose for these communities. At the state levels there is intensive work going ahead to inform and inject ethnic communities, using many innovative strategies. But the main function of the state agencies has been to calm and support cultural groups, with state governments more concerned with distracting their resistance and anger than with ensuring their rights.  For two years I have been pointing out how the testing regimes are inequitable and ensure ignorance. How easy would it be now for the PCR and RAT testing reporting situation to collect one question – what language would you prefer to have your COVID information in? It would be a massive gamechanger, as work on vaccination language preferences has already proven to be.

Among the elderly in nursing homes and among people with disabilities from culturally diverse backgrounds, the impact has been huge. We now have a situation where nearly 100 people a day are dying, with a very high proportion of those people from ethnic communities with all the features described above. However no one holds a hose for them, and they become a bland statistic without political leverage, a cost of opening up so that other people can watch the cricket and the tennis.

Imagine the situation instead where a Commonwealth statutory agency, with research capacity and executive authority, was in the game, holding the hose, finding the flare ups and ensuring the retardants were directed to the appropriate place. Imagine pro-active engagement with the thousands of people in nursing homes from multicultural communities, currently  isolated, sickening and dying, left to the uncaring and forgetful Minister for Ageing, and an equally irrelevant Minister for Multicultural Affairs. 

It is about time that Australia, instead of slapping itself on the back as the most successful multicultural society in the world, realises that it is systematically failing at the task, and recognises the dead and dying people from diverse backgrounds as in-your-face evidence of this fact. Then we should have a cross-party conversation about how to make the situation better and thus become as inclusive and equitable as we pretend to be. Something like a Multicultural Act with some of the features of the 1990 agencies and a more pro-active agenda (like the old Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs set up by Fraser and knocked off by Hawke) would start to fit the bill. Any politician willing to risk a wedge to propose it? 

Andrew Jakubowiczis emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney.

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