On Saturdays I help a disabled Chinese woman in her 60s with her shopping. We head to bustling Chinese suburbs of Sydney such as Ashfield or Campsie, where you can find delicious Cantonese-style roasted duck or soft steamed buns. The rich, cultural diversity of our neighbourhoods is one of the great pleasures of Sydney life.
Prior to this current lockdown, she and I would go in and out of tiny, crowded fruit and vegetable markets and I noted that while there was more mask-wearing than in the general populace, few patrons would check in. Some of the stores had no QR code at all and what Covid signage I saw was always in English, not Chinese.
I remember thinking: boy, if the virus were to hit here it would be a disaster.
Now deep into Sydney’s Delta Covid wave, Campsie is emerging as a viral epicentre. And as the community struggles to respond to the revived threat, what’s clear is that the highly contagious Delta strain exposes vulnerabilities in our public systems and complexities of managing a city with so many non-English speakers.
In the not-too-distant future, an individual’s failure to get vaccinated could be viewed as a grave dereliction of duty – up there alongside drink driving and tax evasion. But vaccine hesitancy in these communities is distinct from the more infamous, conspiracy-laden, anti-vaxx movement.
This woman I help is the most germaphobic person I’ve ever met (a difficult condition at the best of times let alone during a global health crisis). She shops wearing an N95 mask, goggles and gloves. And yet, to my surprise, she is not rushing to get vaccinated.
As I spoke with more and more friends whose immigrant parents and grandparents were also slow to get the Covid vaccine, I began to see this hesitancy as symptomatic of the immigrant experience.
For many immigrant Australians, when faced with an existential threat as distressing as Covid, their natural reaction is to withdraw into spheres that are safe, familiar and over which they have some control.
Many come to Australia from countries with incompetent governments at best or flee government persecution at worst, and so their relationship to government is characterised by mistrust and fear. And while the New South Wales chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant has said many times that staying at home is the most important thing we Sydneysiders can do, in fact, we must also forge many new and unfamiliar habits of interacting with government systems.
Covid demands that we get tested, get the jab, abide by a bewildering, ever-changing set of restrictions now specific to which local government area you reside in, log our movements, apply for financial support, do interviews with contact tracers, and when we get sick, call emergency. All of this while limiting contact with a vital source of support: family in other households.
Nor should the impact of language barriers be understated. My Mandarin is passable but not fluent, so conversations with this woman about Covid can be a struggle. While I quickly ascertained “Asilikang” meant AstraZeneca, the meaning of “Huirui” took a little longer (Pfizer). This has given me a taste of the fog through which many Sydneysiders, who may only speak one of the 250 languages present in our city, are hearing public health messages.
Even those of you tuning into the premier’s 11am press conferences with an almost religious devotion may find these messages overly complex, changing with great frequency, and seemingly contradictory – now imagine if you don’t speak English and you’re busy working every day as an essential worker.
The digital revolution has posed fresh challenges to the acculturation of new Australians. Back in the early 70s when my dad immigrated to Australia from Malaysia it cost an arm and a leg to call back home. But these days immigrants come tethered to home countries by a digital lifeline in their pockets. One friend tells me her father’s morning news ritual is not ABC or even SBS but the paper of his hometown in India – “A city of 2.5 million, but still,” she quips.
These will not be new challenges to NSW Health. They are accustomed to facing multiple forms of disadvantage that compound a person or community’s vulnerability, including economic disadvantage, age, education levels, mental health and disability. But as Chant has said, the Delta variant requires each of us to be “almost perfect”, and clearly our system is straining.
Science may have led us to rip the city into two with harsher restrictions placed on those living in western Sydney. But invisible behind those cold stats is the tragic reality that our culturally diverse western Sydneysiders are also our essential service workers – cleaners, carers, supermarket packers, drivers, tradies – and all of our lives depend on their work. It is a cruel function of economic disadvantage that western Sydneysiders must face both a greater risk of exposure to the virus and have their freedoms more stringently curtailed.
Multiculturalism has become such a beloved facet of Australian life it can feel inherent to our national identity. Nearly a third of our citizenry was born overseas – among the highest in the world. But in fact, multiculturalism was instigated as a top-down government policy and a remarkable evolution for an Australian government that had a white Australia and assimilationist policies only a few short decades ago.
Underlining any sound multicultural public policy is a gentle maxim: meet people where they are at. Citizenship is a journey. And long ago Australian governments recognised that cultural community groups and leaders, translator services, SBS and local language media, and health services embedded in culturally familiar settings have an important role to play on that journey.
And in a time when each of us is so painfully socially distanced from each other, yet never before had our fate bound so closely together, those multicultural services are not just vital to the lives of new Australians but to all of us.
Monica Tan is a resident of Sydney and the author of Stranger Country which won a 2020 NT book award