“It must be the Indians,” I hear and every fibre of me bristles with indignation.
“It’s not,” I retort to no one in particular.
I am watching a live feed from a Covid hotspot.
“Most of us are doing the right thing,” the reporter’s subject says, standing outside a modest house in a modest suburb. Behind his mask, his eyes beseech, “Please believe me.” But the choice of subject is problematic, a young Afghan Australian boy thrust into the limelight to offer both plea and reassurance to a spooked public. I see kids like him in my clinic: when your parents don’t speak English, you skip school to help them. He may be young but he’s well-versed in the dangers of victimisation. He has no choice but to defend his whole community.
Just then, an acquaintance calls me. “If it wasn’t for those Africans, we’d be fine,” she grumbles. This time, I gently challenge her assertion and she concedes that what she’s really annoyed about is her husband’s drinking.
In the middle of a second lockdown, Melbourne has had enough. Evaporating jobs and fading resilience paired with the arrival of spring have made us restless. So many conversations have ended with, “Let’s wait till it’s over,” but of course the pandemic continues. Young and old, we all crave the normality which epidemiologists say is far away, but that hardly matters. An inevitable new outbreak occurs and anxieties rise, along with intolerance.
Young Indian Australians were among the security guards hired by the state government to work in quarantine hotels.
The program went badly wrong and is now the subject of a formal inquiry that led to the resignation of the health minister, but not before “Indians” were scapegoated by some.
Then 3,000 public housing residents were suddenly locked inside their homes, the towers described as a “crime scene”. The public health concern may have been legitimate but the execution of the plan was roundly criticised for putting an unfair spotlight on African Australians.
Now, it’s the turn of Afghan Australians.
In each instance, entire communities are branded with the same brush, an easy and cynical distraction.
Meanwhile, a couple escapes to an island home, turned away from one checkpoint only to be caught at another.
Others break the night-time curfew to buy cigarettes, fries, pet food and even a fish tank. There are those who claim immunity from the virus as a result of a “birth condition”. And those who simply can’t be bothered following the rules.
Police have issued infringements fines and officials have called out the idiocy, but no one thinks that these offenders represent their community. Why the double standard?
The US author HL Mencken said that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.
Across the world, the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic determinants of health that have usually been a footnote in textbooks. Racial and ethnic minorities have been more greatly affected due to greater baseline inequity in terms of access to education, housing, criminal justice and finance.
Social distancing is a privilege for those who live in crowds. The best information is wasted on those who don’t understand the language it’s written in. Sage advice is as good as no advice if there is historic mistrust between providers and recipients.
A failure to build reserves of inclusivity and understanding beforehand can quickly escalate problems during a crisis – African community leaders pointed this out as the handling of the tower residents became a public relations disaster.
I proudly watch my colleagues manage new testing stations in hotspots. Clinical trials, patient experience surveys and public health programs often exclude minorities and those without a command of English.
The promise is always the same – when we have good data on fit, overwhelmingly white, English-speaking people, we will get to the others. But somehow the day never comes, and the situation of others improves but glacially. But now that our fates are truly intertwined, we are rolling up our sleeves. Testing, educating and supporting strangers help us all. So do masks and hand hygiene.
One of the nicest things about my work is its cultural diversity. On some days it’s a pain to find half a dozen interpreters in the course of one morning; on others, the space resonates with the sounds of Dari, Dinka, Serbian and Punjabi. It’s impossible to not be struck that the world really is a global village.
When working late, I often spot a quiet South Sudanese man outside. I tell him to come in but he is appalled at the idea of disturbing “the doctor”. But once I reject the notion, he relaxes in conversation. Sometimes, he is replaced by an Indian woman, a trained nurse getting local qualifications and working as a cleaner to pay her bills. The local cafe is managed by a young Afghan who always finds time to make eye contact. When we treat them and work with them, people who don’t look like us become one of us.
This is why the Victorian chief health officer drew dismay for depicting frustration at the Afghan community during a press conference. The community chided him and doctors bemoaned the unnecessary hindrance to contact tracing. But, being widely acknowledged as diligent and decent, he was quick to recognise and apologise for his error. His honest remarks might teach government ministers a thing or two about transparent communication.
As Melbourne crawls out of hiatus, we are impatient and anxious. But it behoves us to remember that, whether we like it or not, the only way out is together.
Which is why, instead of apportioning blame, our time may be better spent figuring out how we can each play a part in the recovery.