Our vulnerable patients trust us but Victoria’s vaccination system is hard to navigate | Mariam Tokhi and Lester Mascarenhas

We must make vaccinations accessible to those from diverse backgrounds with poor English-language skills and limited health literacy

Not long ago, in the before times, we travelled to faraway places. Maybe you remember it, too? Queueing to buy a train ticket in a foreign language. The anxiety of being misunderstood. Your faltering voice. The blank look of the ticket seller. The restlessness of the folks queueing behind you.

Now imagine that it isn’t a train ticket you’re lining up for, but a Covid-19 vaccine.

Many of us have spent the past few days on our phones, laptops and tablets trying to organise testing or vaccination. It has been frustrating: long hold times, lengthy prerecorded messages, circular conversations, being passed between operators, spelling your name in alpha bravo military alphabet. Could you do it in a language that was foreign to you? In a system that was strange and confusing?

Well, that is the daily experience of the people who we provide care to as GPs at Utopia Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health in Melbourne’s west.

As GPs, we’ve known for years that healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers was difficult to access, costly and of variable quality. But now we need you to hear it. Not just because everyone deserves good care. But because in the midst of a pandemic, we all can see that our health is interdependent.

Caring for our neighbours, and our most vulnerable, has never been more important. And that includes making vaccinations available and accessible to those from diverse backgrounds with poor English language skills and limited health system literacy.

Utopia Health was founded 18 months ago as a not-for-profit community-centred health service. We provide services in Wyndham, in Melbourne’s outer west; we were the worst-affected area in Melbourne’s deadly second wave in the winter of 2020.

Most of our patients are confused by, and sometimes oblivious to, the public messaging about the need for Covid-19 vaccination. We’ve been working to encourage them to get protected. And they trust us. But the system is hard to navigate. Supporting them is unfunded work for us. We do it anyway. It is harder still because our application for Covid-19 vaccinations was knocked back in the federal government’s first rollout. We would love to provide vaccinations on site. And we can’t.

And despite assurances that community health centres are already well-funded to support refugees and asylum seekers, we continue to receive patients who claim they are unable to access a service that meets their needs anywhere in the far west of Melbourne.

One of our patients, Ali*, has cancer and severe immunosuppression. He recently rang up Utopia and reported that he was feeling miserable with a fever and a sore throat. We directed him to the nearest respiratory clinic for testing. He wouldn’t go as he didn’t just want a Covid-19 test, he wanted an assessment by a doctor. Of course, we saw Ali and assessed, tested and treated him. Ali is an asylum seeker and he does not have a Medicare card. He is incredibly vulnerable. Utopia did not receive any payment for his care.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to think about others, because our fates are connected. Our only way out of the pandemic and the unending disruption to social and economic activity is through vaccination of as many people as possible. This includes the tens of thousands of people of refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds, often living in deprived parts of our city. They are people, just like you and me, who have survived against extraordinary odds.

The pandemic has also shown us the large role governments play in managing disasters. So why then does Utopia have to exist? Where are our taxpayer dollars going? Who will vaccinate the very same migrant communities who were disproportionately affected in the winter of 2020?

Utopia has reapplied for a supply of Covid-19 vaccines in the next rollout phase. The response we get from the federal government will make the difference between life and death for our clients.

• Dr Lester Mascarenhas and Dr Mariam Tokhi are GPs working at Utopia Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health in Hoppers Crossing

* Ali’s name was changed


Mariam Tokhi and Lester Mascarenhas

The GuardianTramp

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