Finishing the COVID-19 marathon strong

Many of us will feel relieved to hear that, in a press conference this month, World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested “the end is in sight” for the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a long road and the idea that we might be able to see some sort of finish line is a reason to breathe easier (pun intended!).

However, his announcement wasn’t a call to relax our COVID-19 prevention efforts. Even with the end in sight, it is crucial that right now we work even harder to make sure that everyone gets across the finish line and no one is left behind in the process of recovery, including migrant and refugee women and their communities.

Our own research found that despite the fact that migrant and refugee women experienced high levels of financial insecurity, caring responsibilities and emotional strain during the pandemic, they were often forgotten or overlooked in COVID-19 support initiatives.

For instance, many women’s visa status prevented them from accessing financial support through the pandemic. Certain visa restrictions have also meant that some migrant women are not eligible for Medicare, rendering medicine and healthcare inaccessible. Those on temporary visas were also not eligible for government grants such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments. With a high concentration of migrant women in precarious employment, these barriers to support have taken a heavy toll.

Migrant and refugee women were also left behind in the government’s COVID-19 messaging. Over a quarter of women we spoke to said that COVID-19 information was not culturally tailored nor readily available in languages other than English. An even more recent survey by Jean Hailes found more than half of participants from non-English-speaking backgrounds were unable to find health information in their own language. This has had a significant impact on vaccination rates in migrant and refugee communities that did not have equitable access to learn about the vaccine rollout. Our own Health in My Language program is now addressing this significant issue, delivering multilingual health education to increase vaccine confidence among migrant and refugee communities across Australia.

These structural, cultural and linguistic barriers to accessing information, healthcare and financial support has had tragic consequences for migrant and refugee communities. The ABS found between the start of the pandemic and 31 May 2022, those born overseas were more than twice as likely to die as people who were born in Australia.

To ensure migrant communities are not left behind as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, it is critical a national infrastructure of multilingual, culturally appropriate health education and support programs like Health in My Language are maintained. Providing a multilingual health education workforce that actively engages migrant and refugee communities not only improves equitable access to healthcare, it also eases the pressure on hospitals with its focus on prevention.

As Dr Tedros said, “A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. So must we. We can see the finish line. We’re in a winning position. But now is the worst time to stop running”.

First published in edition #113 of The WRAP on 30 September 2022.