COVID-19 recovery: We’re still in different boats

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rallying cry ‘we’re all in the same boat’ was countered with an emphatic ‘no, we’re in the same storm but in different boats.’  Although the COVID-19 storm appears to have passed, it hasn’t. According to the World Health Organisation it remains a public health emergency of international concern, the issue of our being in ‘different boats’ remains as urgent as ever.

The pandemic and its outcomes have exposed and exacerbated the entrenched social, cultural, economic and gendered inequities within and across nations and communities. There is growing international evidence that those most impacted and marginalised by structural and systemic forces, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and migrants and refugees, have been left aground.

Despite the availability of vaccines and antivirals, deaths from COVID-19 continue to occur at a daily rate comparable to those dark early lockdown days. The inequality is stark: people born overseas died of COVID-19 at a rate one and a half times higher than that of people who were born in Australia. For people born in the Middle East the death rate was more than three times higher than for those born in Australia.

If death, disability and chronic health conditions (such as long COVID) are at the acute end of COVID-19 outcomes, there are many more individuals from migrant and refugee backgrounds who continue to endure the often hidden and cumulative effects of racism, discrimination and disadvantage present in our health services, policies and programs.  Migrants on temporary visas, for example, continue to have restricted or no access to health services and other social services despite contributing to taxes. The situation can be especially dire if you’re a financially dependent migrant mother, newly arrived in the country and experiencing family violence. Just imagine being in her boat.

For a country that prides itself on its multicultural credentials and as the land of the liberal and democratic ‘fair go’, these types of situations and statistics are unacceptable. Any talk of post-COVID 19 recovery must address the question of our different ‘boats’ and the growing disparity between those in precarious dinghies and luxury yachts.

In this crucial stage of the pandemic’s transition, it’s important we put into action all that we know about what works best in managing the on-going risks. If every storm cloud has a silver-lining, it might just be a bilingual, bicultural health education workforce that can provide the necessary ballast for those communities that have been left at sea.

In just over 12 months, MCWH’s Health in My Language program has made contact with over one thousand groups and organisations and reached approximately 12,000 people from migrant and refugee backgrounds across each state and territory in Australia, providing access to essential COVID-19 vaccination and other health information, in-language to people typically considered ‘hard to reach’.  It’s an extraordinary effort in the face of a pandemic that remains an ‘extraordinary’ risk to health, based on reported rates of infection and disease. This extraordinary work needs to continue.

First published in edition #120 of The WRAP on 28 April 2023