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Lack of data on diverse communities hampering COVID-19 fight

1 July 20200 comments

Australia’s multicultural communities may be at greater risk from the COVID-19 pandemic because health data is not collected on the basis of cultural background, ethnicity or language, according to leading sociologist Professor Andrew Jakubowicz. 

Prof Jakubowicz says that the rising number of COVID-19 cases this week in Melbourne suburbs with large populations of diverse communities has brought the issue to the fore,

“A dark hole sits at the heart of multicultural Australia – the data by-pass on how the COVID19 virus pandemic is affecting our culturally diverse communities,” Prof Jakubowicz wrote on the blog site ‘Pearls and Irritations’. 

“While quite properly extraordinarily careful measures have been taken to identify and protect vulnerable Indigenous people, governments in all jurisdictions have been rather more cavalier about our multicultural reality and the disease,” he said.

Prof Jakubowicz, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology Sydney, said the lack of data has had affected both the impact of the disease on communities, and the contribution that communities make to containing or transmitting the disease.

“…one of the fundamental requirements of a multicultural society, that social facts as they effect social groups should be enumerated and recorded, has been consciously and systematically avoided,” he said.

“In the USA and UK ethnicity or race are clear indicators of vulnerability. In Australia, who knows? The only public commentaries are anecdotal reflections, and a shared belief apparent among the managers of the pandemic in government until the Melbourne resurgence that for the most part the disease is confined to Anglos either local or travelling in,” Prof Jakubowicz said.

He said a study into levels of health literacy released by Sydney University in June  

Found that lower levels of health literacy are associated with poorer practices in health protection. And a key indicator of low health literacy even among English readers, was a language other than English spoken at home.

“While multicultural health issues can be quite well researched, and state health agencies usually record data that allows an understanding of the potential cultural and social influences on health and illness, a perfect storm of absence has been generated around the corona virus,” Prof Jakubowicz said.

He said health data collection in Australia does not capture ethnicity, language spoken, or country of birth.

“The failure to collect data on cultural background and language leaves potentially vulnerable groups without adequate information, and epidemiologists and public health officials without a realistic sense of the landscape in which they need to move,” Prof Jakubowicz said.

“If sanitary social distancing and testing are the key weapons against the disease at least in the short term, then rigorous documentation of how the pandemic is affecting different groups must underpin strategies that seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure potential “spreaders” can take appropriate and rational precautions,” he said.